Caroline Kennedy & James I. Rogers: Virtuous drones?, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:2, 211-227 DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2014.991217
In regions where poor transport infrastructure and difﬁcult terrains are a perennial challenge, these vehicles are a vital resource for the ‘fulﬁlment of the civilian protection mandate’. Without helicopters, UN personnel have little support on the ground and effectively no intelligence from the air. Deﬁciencies such as this contribute to failures in UN mandate fulﬁlment. This was evident in 2012 when a detachment of peacekeepers as part of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) was expected to halt an army of M23 rebels – who had rapidly grown ‘much stronger in size and capability’ – from taking the city of Goma.10 In this case, the peacekeepers made a ‘value judgement’ and chose not to engage precisely because of the shortages in equipment and personnel.
Such inaction led to the peacekeepers being labelled as ‘les touristes’ by the local population.12 In response, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated that it was ‘absurd’ that the UN force did not have the necessary means, such as helicopter assistance, to defend Goma – a city of over one million people – from the rebels who committed ‘human rights violations’. This argument is surely compelling if the expectation is, unlike in Srebrenica, that peacekeepers should protect the population.
It is probable that if helicopters had been readily available (along with a robust political will), the rapid deployment of reinforcements could have taken place, and air support (in its various forms) would have been at hand to combat some of the human rights abuse. This view was reinforced in the 2010 ‘Report of the Secretary-General’, which stated that:
- two of our missions, the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, and the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), are completing their deployments under difﬁcult circumstances. Together with the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) [renamed MONUSCO] and the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS), they also continue to lack key capabilities, in particular aviation assets, to enable full implementation of their mandates. Such shortages are especially critical since their mandates require peacekeepers to act rapidly and in a robust fashion across vast areas to implement critical tasks such as the protection of civilians.
However, despite the report, critical shortages in equipment remain in many peacekeeping missions. Shortages increase the challenges and decrease the effectiveness of the DPKO as it attempts to fulﬁl proscribed mandates and protect civilians. One suggestion to combat these deﬁciencies is the introduction of unmanned drones. This is a relatively cheap option accounting for up to 50% of the cost of helicopter systems (even more so when the cost of training personnel to man these aircraft is taken into account). As the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous stated, the ‘use of such drones during the recent crisis … would have enhanced the capability … to protect civilians by preventing violence and displacements’
As Dorn’s 2008 research into UN peacekeeper fatalities highlighted, the ‘overall fatality rate for [peacekeepers from the] developing world [is] 77 per cent higher than for the developed world, mostly on account of illness. With almost 90% of the troops in the ﬁeld drawn from the developing world, the UN may be wise to directly address the issue of illness.’ Such ﬁgures indicate inadequate levels of peacekeeper training. This leads to ‘a general lack of awareness’ of the disease amongst peacekeepers, resulting in thousands falling victim. (Facts which highlight the increasing ineffectiveness and resultant vulnerability of peacekeepers in these highrisk regions.) So one ‘virtue’ of drones would be to reduce the number of ground-based monitoring, observing, reporting and peace enforcement personnel needed in high-risk regions. Drone deployment would reduce threats to life and arguably improve the effectiveness of the mission. Yet this is not the only case for the deployment of drones.
Mercenaries, arms dealers, criminal gangs and ‘radicalised’ individuals all made their way into the landscape of these ‘new’ conﬂicts. Arguably these groups had little respect for the UN, its peacekeepers and their role. In West Africa for example, child soldiers would be fuelled with concoctions of cocaine, gunpowder and alcohol by commanders and sent to perform speciﬁc tasks, such as providing ‘bait’ for attacks. In 2012, ‘Militias loyal to the former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo’ carried out an attack in which they used ‘small boys units’, otherwise known as child soldiers, to scout and take part in an ambush on a unit of UN peacekeepers which resulted in seven of the soldiers being killed. Drones may reduce these dynamics by providing surveillance evidence and therefore criminal attribution, thus making these acts more costly for the perpetrator and indeed may act as a deterrent.
The example above is not the only case of child soldiers and peacekeepers clashing during conﬂict. Since 2010, when the UN established its MONUSCO mission, it has faced the ever-present problem of ﬁghting child soldiers who are part of the M23 rebel group. As MONUSCO’s Chief of Child Protection Dee Brillenburg Wurth has stated, there are ‘a couple of hundred children among the M23 ranks’ and these children have been given ‘very, very sophisticated training [and] very serious training’ for conﬂict situations.34 As a result, this has led to a number of situations where peacekeepers have faced children in the line of ﬁre. The UN has held roundtable discussions and training workshops on how to deal with situations where peacekeepers are at risk and ‘confronted with child soldiers during their ﬁeld deployments’.
It is such perceptions of the American deployment of drones which has led to the aforementioned notion that drones are a ‘scourge targeting innocent civilians’.62 The often-cited ﬁgure that ‘474 to 881 civilians’ have been killed through these drone strikes since September 2012 lends support to this notion. Furthermore, such an offensive deployment of drones has led a number of like-minded reports to suggest that these American strikes cause ‘harm to civilians and local communities, and may fuel anger toward the US in the aggregate’. From these perceptions of American drone use for the purpose of targeted killing, it is clear to see the reasons why a negative public perception of drones may exist. However, it is the view of this article that just because the manner in which the US has deployed drones through targeted killing has led to a negative perception of the weaponry, this does not mean that if used in a less offensive and more regulated and restricted manner, the public perception of armed drones cannot change.
The perception of a drone is surely a social construct? The way in which they are perceived depends upon how they are deployed, by whom and for what reason. Drones, even armed drones, can be used in a virtuous manner to protect civilians in line with a UN mandate, just as much as they can be used in a manner which is perceived as immoral or unethical. Let us learn lessons from the public perception of drones in regions of Afghanistan, compared to the border regions of Pakistan, where ‘signature strikes’ epitomised a move toward a much more offensive and indiscriminate targeting strategy. Here armed drones were deployed against those whose behaviour was linked to ‘militant activity’ (aka a pre-deﬁned ‘terrorist signature’).65 This ambiguous notion led to an increase in collateral damage. As one probing The Atlantic report stated, ‘[t]he problem with signature strikes is that they open the door to a much higher incidence of civilian casualties [emphasis added]’.66 Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, when drones are deployed in this manner they cause anti-drone and anti-American sentiment within the society upon which they are deployed. In contrast, in parts of Afghanistan the view of armed drones is distinctly more positive due to restrictions put on their use.