Human rights activists Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Harris argue in the New York Times that surveillance drones can and should be used in defense of human rights. Drones could provide detailed real-time evidence of crimes against humanity, such as Syrian government attacks against civilians or genocidal violence in Sudan. Increased awareness of such crimes could help to save lives, the authors claim. Surveillance drones are reportedly being used by a conservation group to monitor illegal Japanese whaling. Graphic scenes of the killing of whales and dolphins could intensify the public outcry against such abuses.
Should we learn to stop worrying and love the drone? Not exactly. It is important to distinguish between drones as weapons systems and their use for surveillance. The latter purpose could be more justifiable, especially in defense of human rights, but serious questions arise. By what authority would governments or nongovernmental groups have the right to conduct surveillance over the territory of a sovereign state? Sniderman and Harris acknowledge that sending drones to spy on Syria would violate national and international laws. What limitations should be placed on such surveillance? Would those being spied upon have the right to fire upon the drones, perhaps prompting retaliation and leading to a drone-against-drone scenario of robotic war? Would images of wrongdoing provided by drones be admissible in legal proceedings? Should they be used by broadcast media?
These and many other questions about the use of drones demand urgent attention and clarification. As Tom Barry and I have argued, the role of drones should be debated nationally and internationally, and legally binding guidelines and protocols for their use need to be established and enforced.