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.

Oil slick reporting through mobiles

The potential of Oil Reporter, a new mobile application from Crisis Commons, goes far beyond its intended application to monitor the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf Coast. In a blog post written four years ago (Content without wires), I hinted at the potential for meaningful peacebuilding through similar applications, running on smartphones that are now increasingly the norm,

For peace, this means that grassroots communities will (finally) have the means through which their voices can be promoted, at little or no cost (certainly less than the combined cost of PC ownership and PC based wired internet access) through mobile telephony frameworks or WiMax & PDA combinations to a larger audience. In reality, this means that technologies already in development for news and journalism using mobile video can be used for human rights monitoring, bringing to light local government corruption, capture government officials who take bribes, help in alternative dispute resolution with regards to post-conflict land issues by giving mediators a better idea of the contested territory through video & photos, helping humanitarian aid work and strengthening community participation in peacebuilding frameworks.

However, as I’ve noted earlier,

…the mere introduction of technology will make our lives better is erroneous – 3G is not going to make our lives better. We need to figure out the ways through which 3G can and must feed into democracy that’s founded upon effective communication between peoples – and that’s not something telecoms companies operating under profit imperatives can always successfully envision.

Oil Reporter by Crisis Commons, running on Android as well as the iPhone, is open-source, polished and powerful. Although there are very few reports featured on the site produced by the mobile application, it’s the commendable thought that has gone into the design of this application that is worthy of emulation. There’s a visualisation component through Google Maps, a data aggregation component, an API, a mobile client for incident tracking and the Oil Reporter application itself – for me, the fundamentals of a citizen journalism newsroom.

Opening up the environmental and livelihood costs, over the long-term, to public scrutiny and debate, Oil Reporter’s website notes,

Oil Reporter’s Adopt-A-Beach initiative will provide the opportunity for virtual volunteers to review high resolutions imagery of the Gulf Coast and to map data elements such as perimeters of oil presence and injured wildlife in remote areas where physical assessment access is limited. This also provides an opportunity for Oil Reporter photographs and video to be joined with high resolution imagery to provide greater understanding and provide an ability to share data from these sources back to the public.

It is that greater understanding that applications such as this can provide in other contexts, such as terrains of violence and theatres of conflict. The robust contestation of issues and processes informed by multiple perspectives captured through mobile devices is a new paradigm for accountability and journalism that contests propaganda, mainstream media bias, marketing spin.

Even in Sri Lanka, though a basic camera phone, the callous insensitivity of government stood exposed and condemned post-war. Beyond this, I am interested in how applications like Oil Reporter can be adapted and leveraged to provide citizens with the power to bear witness and a voice to capture the world as they see it. All of the resulting content will (and must) be contested. But let’s not forget or underplay that much of it will never be featured in mainstream media.

And that to me, looking to the future, is the true potential of Oil Reporter.

Unique perspectives on the end of war in Sri Lanka

Groundviews Special Edition

“I am an Indian pediatrician who served with the Indian Medical Team at Menik Farm IDP center. The point I am trying to raise is this – we were managing scores of infants with bullet / shell blast injuries (some festering, mostly healed). It gives an idea of the extent of collateral damage suffered by the civilians caught in the last days of the conflict. If an infant could not be protected, imagine the plight of older children and adults. The so-called “Sri Lankan Solution” being touted as the panacea for dealing with terrorism worldwide needs a thorough relook.”” by Tathagata Bose

Groundviews was set up to bear witness, contest the status quo and document inconvenient truths. This comment by Dr. Bose, from over 300 published to date in response to the Special Edition on the end of war, is a cogent example of the site’s raison d’être. Over the previous weekend alone, over 6,500 readers read the content on the site. With over 22,000 readers to date, and three more days of compelling content looking at the end of war yet to be published, Groundviews is a unique platform for perspectives, opinions and a defiant remembrance that mainstream print and broadcast media in Sri Lanka, even post-war, will not feature.

The Special Edition includes content – in prose, verse, photography and video – from the well known political commentators, award winning poets, photographers, senior civil servants, erstwhile high-ranking diplomats, senior academics, leading feminists, researchers, film-makers, novelists, leading voices from the Tamil diaspora, senior journalists, youth activists and bloggers.

As I noted in an Editorial to the Special Edition, Groundviews strongly encourage your responses complementing and contesting this content. I also noted that that it is only through vibrant and civil debate, without fear of violent physical or verbal reprisals, that a just peace and a timbre of democracy we so richly deserve after war’s end can be engendered.

A full list of the content published to date in chronological order:

You simply won’t find this content anywhere else. And remember, the Special Edition runs till the 26th – expect more compelling content and discussions!



Groundviews – – Sri Lanka’s first and international award-winning citizens journalism website uses a range of genres and media to highlight alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, the arts and literature, peacebuilding and other issues. The site has won two international awards for the quality of its journalism, including the prestigious Manthan Award South Asia in 2009. The grand jury’s evaluation of the site noted, “What no media dares to report, Groundviews publicly exposes. It’s a new age media for a new Sri Lanka… Free media at it’s very best!”

Join over 1,400 other readers to get updates and comment via Facebook – http://www.facebook/groundviews

Our Twitter feed is updated frequently every day and gives editorially vetted pointers to breaking news and incisive writing online on Sri Lanka. Follow us along with over 550 others here –

Groundviews was the first and currently one of just two sites in Sri Lanka that renders content for mobiles. On your iPhone, Blackberry, Symbian, Android phone or on any other mobile browser, simply go to to access site content automatically rendered to best suit your screen and device.

South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts

South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts is finally out. Edited by Shakuntala Banaji, the book features a chapter written by me titled Expanding the Art of the Possible: Leveraging Citizen Journalism and User Generated Content (USG) for Peace in Sri Lanka. It is one of two essays in the tome dealing with media in Sri Lanka, with other focussing on teledramas by Dr. Neluka Silva, Head of the Dept of English, University of Colombo.

As I note at the end of my chapter,

This discussion on the potential of new media, the web and the Internet to transform policies and practices of illiberal democracy isn’t, as yet, one that has traction amongst many people in Sri Lanka. Millions of people live without any awareness of the Internet or its potential for social change. There are arguably more pressing social issues in some regions than the digital divide – including the ravages of terrorism. However, the terrains of violence and conflict also hold within them the possibilities of democratic dialogue mediated through the Internet and mobile phones in particular… Animating the potential of new media and the Internet is the promise of a vibrant democracy. A vibrant democracy in turn is nourished by a culture of open discussion on core issues of governance and as they are felt by citizens in all regions of a country. This symbiosis between democracy and dialogue, between new media and its influence on progressive social policy, between the promise of the Internet to empower communities and the appropriation of ICT by communities to strengthen their engagement with justice and peace, is a qualitative and quantitative measurement of the health of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Peace Building in the Digital Era: 9th Forum on New Technologies of Information & Communication applied to Conflict

Since 2004, I have worked on and been involved in the interesting evolution of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), in large part as a Fellow at The National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. From once a strictly legal/commercial dispute resolution domain, ODR has now more fully embraced peacebuilding and the pivotal importance of mobiles, developments I can claim some degree of influence in shaping.

My last real world presentation on ODR was two years ago, in front of Vint Cerf as it turned out, envisioned the ways in which web, online, mobile and social networking platforms and technologies would transform the approach to and understanding of online dispute resolution.

In 2009, when the annual ODR Forum was held in Haifa, Israel, I did a Skype video call on how ICTs were helping peacebuilding and conflict transformation, and blogged about how the global financial downturn at the time called for a greater emphasis on and more innovation in ODR services and tools.

In June this year, the forum will be held in Argentina and is titled “Peace Building in the Digital Era”. The programme over two days in June looks very interesting, and will I am sure attract a high calibre of speakers and participants. I will be speaking on how new media and new technologies are helping redefine the theory and practice of peacebuilding. From the Iranian ‘Twitter revolution’ to post-election Kenyan crowd-sourcing and earthquake victim perspectives via mobiles in Haiti, the same ICTs used for repression, censorship and control are used to strengthen democracy, liberty and freedom. My presentation will explore these issues and events and extrapolate ideas for the application of ICTs in peacebuilding in the future.

A call for presentation is open until 30 March 2010. More details here and the principal subject areas, almost all of which I have written about on this blog, include:

  • ON LINE Dispute resolution
  • Organizational Conflicts Management
  • Training and Quality of ODR Service Providers
  • ODR News
  • Important Subjects in ODR field
  • New Technologies
  • Serious Games
  • Peace Building using web 2.0

I’m looking forward to this event a great deal.

A selection of key writing and presentations I’ve done over the years on ODR include:

Negotiating ethnic hatred in Sri Lanka


Can we End this Cycle of Hatred? an article published on Groundviews, a citizen journalism site I edit in Sri Lanka, elicited this comment from someone called Ramanan:

Nice article. I see a lot of parents infesting the young minds in western world. I am a Tamil, living in the US for a long time. I went for a birthday party recently. The birthday was for a kid, whose dad is a friend of mine. I met another kid there, who is of Sinhalese origin, born and raised in the US. The kid asked me whether I am from India and I told him that I am from Sri Lanka. Next question was, “Are you Sinhalse”? When I said, “No. I am Tamil”, he told me that his parents have told him not to talk to tiger supporters. See the hatred here.

Actually, I should be the one who shouldn’t be talking to Sinhalese. My dad was burnt alive by Government backed Sinhalese thugs during 1983 riots. I should have vengance. However, I don’t think these few guys who did that don’t represent the community as whole.

The point is, both sides are putting hatred in their kids minds. If I hate you, you made me hate you. In my case, Sinhalese made me hate them. Still, I don’t.

How does one engage with and respond to such stories? How can we use these stories to help us heal?

Read the original article and leave your thoughts here.