UAVs and peacebuilding: Some thoughts

My work with UAVs is largely conceptual, framed by growing up in a context of war, deeply informed by having to deal with the enduring legacy of violent conflict even post-war and anchored to the inalienable yet often callously erased rights of communities and individuals around safety, security and privacy. My interest in UAVs results from the potential they bring to bear witness – for me, an active process of recording for posterity that challenges – as a consequence of recording and as a consequence of recorded material published in the public domain – historical narratives written solely by those in power, or command power. It is therefore an interesting bridge technology if you will, one that in many contexts, a few social and political elites can employ to bring about, as a consequence of their flyovers and resulting imagery, a sousveillence accessible by many others, holding accountable those who aren’t used to being recorded in any manner.

The normative assumption here is that the sunlight of greater scrutiny around processes, incidents and actions that serve to humiliate, discriminate, repress, stifle or censor, in the form of videos and photographs, can contribute to a change in perceptions that govern illiberal practices and undemocratic policies. UAVs are the latest entrants to a contest around bearing witness with a view to changing public opinion that has existed for much longer, and will continue to rage on. While I am sceptical of claims around how UAVs can irreversibly change attitudes and practices around violence, claims around the potential of this technology (and family of remote controlled craft) to generate perspectives that would not otherwise have been framed deserves our fullest attention.

This is why in March this year, I flagged a number of concerns and ideas around the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes, which fed into the creation of UAViators Network, led by the indefatigable Patrick Meier. Some of the points I flagged in March have resonated widely in the discussions around the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes, including,

The pre-dominant need for ethical frameworks to govern the use of UAVs in humanitarian domains and contexts, and a rights based approach to their introduction, including the information collected as a consequence of their operation. The need to proactively generate ideas and critically analyse use cases around UAV use in non-lethal contexts, so that best practices can be drawn up from their increasing use globally. Working with existing groups and platforms like Crisis Mappers, OpenStreetMaps and Tomnod to see how UAV derived imagery could be used to crowdsource and expedite analysis.

Since March, I’ve curated on Flipboard a magazine that deals with the use of drones for non-lethal, non-offensive purposes anchored to peacebuilding, peacekeeping, the protection and saving of lives, environmental conservation, wildlife protection and humanitarian aid.

More useful thinking on this score was recently published by Helena Puig Larrauri (Drones, ethics and conflict), which in turn generated a response by Patrick Meier (On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention). Helena ends where I’d like to begin, noting that “local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power”. In March this year, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillay noted in her Opening Statement to the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council that,

… the development of new technologies – such as drones and lethal autonomous robots – which push us to the outer edge of our thinking on how to ensure our rights are protected, social media and new information technology which raises the question of where the public and private space lies and the importance of on-line and off-line freedoms..

Helena’s post deals with a lot of these concerns, and bears no repitition. There is however a section of her post that I find interesting to think through a bit more,

An open conversation with communities can include considerations about the potential risks of drone-enabled data collection and whether communities believe these risks are worth taking. This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account.

I am unconvinced that informed consent, which is in turn usually based on assurances over the use and reuse of information voluntarily disclosed, means whatever it meant even just a few years ago. What was once largely paper based and subsequently digitally stored in institutional silos is increasingly digitally captured and widely shared between various actors responding to the same emergency and crisis. There is simply no way any single actor in a coordinated, unified response can assure an individual or community that information they give out will only be used for the purposes they are sharing it for. From cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure to more simple data loss from misplaced USB drives and tablets, from a lack of coherent, systemic guidance around the sharing of field information in the public domain, to a lack of awareness around the use of (geo-tagged) social media updates from the field by aid workers, informed consent based on assurances over the restricted use and sharing of data today are essentially misleading, and thus, ethically questionable. This is brought into sharp focus when the generation of imagery and information is from UAVs, which, depending on geographic frame, no one community or individual can give informed consent around the use of. Different communities even in relative geographic proximity (belonging to different ethnic groups and tribes) can have competing interests around the use of UAV imagery, which for example, can demonstrate land use that is discriminatory even as the primary overflight requirement was around damage assessment. Informed consent in contested geographies thus is a problem exacerbated by image acquisition by UAVs, and Helena’s point about the ability of communities engaging critical with UAV operations needs to be further problematised by framing this ability in the context of pre-existing conflict dynamics.

This has an implication on what she goes on to suggest, which is that,

As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs

I agree in the main, but in light of what I’ve noted above, the devil is in the details – what exactly is community-ownership or community-driven implementation of UAV operations in a context where the ‘community’ itself is deeply divided, within itself and with other communities? I have yet to encounter UAV use for conflict transformation that has multiple (and often, violently divided) communities as custodians of operational mandate and downstream imagery.

As somewhat of an aside, there is also the question of the ‘neutrality’ of humanitarian actors, who both uncritically and often parade this term as somehow the basis upon which they are able to operate even in deeply divided societies rent asunder by violence. Any humanitarian actor – domestic of international – deploying UAVs to support what may be a humanitarian operation particularly in a conflict zone risks, simply by virtue of this deployment, being immediately perceived as somehow partisan or seeking to undermine the legitimacy of one or more actors in that conflict by information acquisition that risks upsetting the status quo. The adoption of UAVs therefore is not without attendant risks around perceptions of operational mandate, no matter what the intended use case is.

Patrick’s response to Helena raises a number of vital questions that build on the points Helena articulates, and bears no further input from me save to say that the questions are centre and forward in how those of us interested in the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes. What I found both complementary and interesting to this post was a more recent post by Patrick, looking at fears, Concerns and opportunities around the use of UAVs in conflict settings. Patrick and his research team at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of fears and concerns expressed by humanitarians and others on the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.


It’s a wonderful framework to build on. For example, concerns in the related spreadsheet around ‘Privacy / Data Collection / Surveillance’ don’t address what should be concerns around data retention policies around information acquired by drones. If for example UAV control rooms are geo-physically located within a conflict zone, or imagery acquired through overflights is stored in a data-centre that is close to or in an active conflict zone, the threat of physical intrusion and the hostile copying or deletion of data is a very real threat. There is in parallel the threat of cyber-attacks around critical infrastructure, and what safeguards humanitarian organisations in particular have around imagery acquired by UAVs, that especially in conflict zones, can through design or inadvertently result in imagery that can be used in judicial and investigative processes around accountability.

The greatest challenge around the use of UAVs in conflict zones, as per Patrick’s on-going research, comes from the use of UAVs by the military. Interestingly, even if the use of UAVs is for purposes of peacekeeping, the use of UAVs, in the same region, by actors for peacebuilding is placed at risk, simply because the operational mandates and access to data vary profoundly depending on who is actually in control of the flights, and how. At least one division needs to be made – of armed actors actively taking an interest in UAVs and opting to target them, and the trauma communities impacted by offensive drone operations may have regarding non-lethal UAV over-flights designed to help, not harm. Armed actors pose operational risks to UAV operators, not just in terms of equipment lost to violence, but the the possible loss of life depending on where a targeted UAV and its payload crash. The psychological trauma communities may experience on account of UAV overflights in a region prone to drone attacks is an entirely different problem, because while it doesn’t place UAV operations at any risk of being shot down from the sky, it poses even greater ethical challenges around the use of this technology even for the best of ends (it certainly doesn’t help in this regard that a living Nobel Peace Laureate is responsible for the most amount of lethal drone attacks in just one country).

I don’t see an easy or immediate resolution to this. As Patrick avers correctly, UAVs are going to get smaller, cheaper and able to fly longer with heavier payloads. Five years hence, even small NGOs with shoe-string budgets will have operational capability for hyper-local UAV overflights, with or without official airspace regulatory oversight, government authority or, in some cases, military clearance. On-board computing power would also have increased around collision detection, leading to swarms of UAVs with different capabilities flying over and gathering increasing amounts of information. Will this stop the military from using drones to attack what it considers are targets? Will the military’s use of drones in any way curtail the growth of UAVs in the service of peacebuilding? I believe the answer to both questions is no.

Are these challenges entirely new? At the conclusion of the Strong Angel III exercise in August 2006 I noted,

While the technology for secure communications already exists, the protocols of information exchange – by whom, for what limited purposes, confidentiality of sources, institutional agreements that don’t rely of personal largesse, ownership of information, the manner in which it will be shared, why and with whom etc – are issues that need a global compact between States and trans-national civil society, so as to support SSTR operations and at the same time safeguard the operational processes, complex relationships and human security of NGO personnel working in conflict zones.

UAVs today highlight what are enduring challenges around the use of technology in peacebuilding in general and especially so-called dual use technologies – which can be used for offensive purposes as well as in do no harm frameworks. UAVs do bring them a unique set of challenges, especially with the incredibly rapid democratisation of a technology that didn’t exist in any commercially viable form till just around a year or two ago. UAVs also highlight more deep seated problems around information generation, consent, sharing, aggregation and retention – and fundamentally, whether eyes in the sky will deter the worst amongst us. Perhaps not. But I would hesitate to dismiss the utility of UAVs in peacebuilding altogether.

For example, Sri Lanka’s post-war militarisation of the North is well documented through available facts and figures, as well as comprehensive satellite imagery analysis. What if Sri Lankan NGOs were to use UAVs to monitor post-war militarisation of the North? Regular over-flights could generate compelling insights around, inter alia, land use and population flows. While I doubt the use of UAVs in this manner would pass muster with government, it is also the case that along with eyes in orbit, eyes in the sky in the years to come will – independent of official approval – provide insights into inconvenient ground truths. The central challenge for me is not around the use of UAVs in peacebuilding (it’s an inevitability), but what to do with the content they acquire and generate in order to ensure timely, meaningful action is taken to protect human dignity, secure human rights and hopefully, as a consequence, save lives.

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