Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Darryl Li square off re: “Some Bad Ideas Can’t Be Shot Down,” Li’s post about Sniderman’s January 30 op-ed, “Drones for Human Rights,” in the New York Times:


I’m glad you took the time to criticize my op-ed in your post, because I’m more than glad to have it torn down publicly and brutally if it’s a bad idea.

But I do not think you were fair, on many accounts.

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about: human rights groups using flying cameras to complement the existing practice of human rights monitoring. In some situations drones could assist this work, and in some situations this might do some good. This is my thesis.

Can this make sense without the backdrop/endorsement of state power? My proposal wanted nothing to do with a state’s military. That Madeleine Albright used satellite imagery of mass graves does not discredit the independent practice of human rights monitoring, which can be valuable.

As an aside, perhaps multilateral bodies like the UN or the Arab League will make use of drones to monitor violence. I’m not sure that would be a bad thing, and in some ways it is less problematic than a non-state NGO doing it.

A drone in Syria would probably be shot down. In other situations, if a non-state actor is doing the killing (the LRA perhaps, or a lightly armed militia), this will be less of a certainty. It’s true that a drone monitoring human rights abuses in Hebron wouldn’t last five minutes. But that a drone can get shot down is not an argument against the role it may play while it flies.

You really get on a roll when you let me know what my real motive is: American-endorsed humanitarian intervention. What a swell fantasy. I didn’t realize that a commitment to documenting atrocities necessitates a unipolar military agenda.

I am not calling for armed intervention in Syria. Human rights discourse and reporting can certainly be problematic, but no, it doesn’t have to be the handmaiden of Western imperialism.

You say it’s difficult to see “how any version of their proposal would be practical” without a commitment to armed military intervention. What a farce. When Anthony Shadid breaks Syrian law to report on the uprising, I presume you’re OK with that. How about when Human Rights Watch sneaks in observers to gather testimony on the civil war in southeastern Burma? I’m not proposing that drones replace these reporting practices — it cannot — but, yes, in extreme cases they might assist.

Most importantly, there’s an enormous red line separating a drone carrying a camera and a drone carrying a missile. These are completely different things and you were lazily glib to suggest otherwise. And, yes, it’s possible to document atrocities without importing a particular interventionist agenda. I understand human rights reporting is a political act, and I understand how a language of human rights can be coopted. But human rights reporting does not prejudge the appropriate strategy to address problems, and at its best the information and understanding it gleans can help craft appropriate solutions.

Am I so “vapid” to think that drones will henceforth help us understand violence from a thousand feet in the air? Give me a break. The real question is whether better documenting atrocity as it occurs can play any positive role in reducing that violence. I don’t know the answer to that question, and it will always depend on the specific circumstances. But I think we should be willing to test that proposition.



My post analyzed why ideas such as your proposed use of “drones for human rights” have the appeal that they do with certain audiences despite their obvious problems. Your response is focused on still defending the merits of your idea. Because we seem to be arguing on different wavelengths, I am skeptical that dialogue would be useful. But perhaps others may find an exchange edifying.

I understand your basic argument to be that, in some situations, use of a drone by a human rights organization might be helpful. Political context isn’t the starting point here; it’s just an interchangeable backdrop. This sets the bar so low so as to make the argument virtually unfalsifiable. You concede that drones against powerful states are a non-starter. But that’s OK, we can still do some good somewhere, right? You concede that maybe drones in Syria also make little sense. So then you shift to talking about drones in central Africa against the LRA (which would of course be completely unlike the drones the US military is likely already using there). But wouldn’t that require the consent of Uganda or other abusive governments that might seek to coopt the drones for their own purposes? OK, how about case X, Y or Z? We could play this game forever because, in your framework, there is always some hypothetical situation in which drones would be feasible and more useful than not. This Gumby-like plasticity allows you to concede almost any critique and to appropriate any headline — even Anthony Shadid’s death — in service of your proposal.

This detachment from context is also what I imagine upset some of the critics of your op-ed: Regardless of what you may think or feel, real conflicts in which real people suffer and die have basically become just so many test cases for your pet idea. Your arguments are that of an evangelizing hammer salesman in search of the right kind of nail with the right kind of board in the right kind of weather for the right kinds of carpenters, wandering around the ruins of homes laid waste in a hurricane, some of whose owners have, incidentally, had their heads bashed in by…hammers. The audience to which this is going to be most compelling isn’t composed of people in these conflicts; it’s those who share your fantasy of a UN viewing session in which dramatic footage prompts dramatic action, a logic vividly illustrated by the domino sequence of the Kony2012 video (21:30-22:30).

You speak of drones as if they are nothing more than flying cameras, just another tool for human rights researchers and journalists. This ignores a glaring difference. When reporters or human rights researchers take the extraordinary step of acting contrary to a sovereign government’s laws, the personal risks they incur provide some degree of legitimizing constraint on their actions. What you are proposing is completely different: the use of a technology whose very appeal lies in its lack of risk and therefore is not similarly constrained. Indeed, insofar as you fantasize about their use in areas “without [a] strong state” in Africa, what you are talking about is NGOs effectively assuming some kind of quasi-public function, further exacerbating their already glaring lack of accountability. Now it may be that one day drones will lose this association with government power and become ubiquitous personalized technologies, like mobile phones. If that occurs, social movements embedded in contexts of struggle will find ways to adapt such technologies on their own — as was the case with Facebook and Twitter. There wouldn’t even be a need for New York Times op-eds, TEDTalks or anything else — people would just do it. In any event, at that stage we will all be debating the abuse of drones by private actors, a massive area of problems that your argument simply skips past.

For the foregoing reasons, your op-ed cannot be taken seriously on its face, so understanding its context becomes even more necessary. In this case, the context is one in which the US and allied governments want to intervene in Syria but know that an air war is not feasible. Therefore, the editors and readers of the New York Times are going to be interested in similar options that allow the exercise of influence on the cheap. I would venture to guess that is why your op-ed was published at that time and in that place, and not simply because of the inherent value of the proposal.

Yet you seem to be shocked that readers associate your op-ed with state or militarized use of drones. Why? You explicitly cite the NATO war on Libya as a precedent justifying your proposal. You have reportedly attempted to hire armed mercenaries for use in Darfur. And your argument does not provide any clues as to what its own limits might be. You claim there is an “enormous red line” separating military use of drones from your proposal. What, exactly, is that red line composed of other than your stated good intentions? From what I can see, not very much. When someone in the policy world took the entirely predictable step of locating the middle ground between your proposal and current practice by suggesting drone use by the UN, you had no clear position on the matter even weeks later. If you think it’s so unfair for readers to associate your op-ed with militarism perhaps you should start by opposing militarism.

When you wrote of a “precedent worth setting,” this was not just a step toward militarization in Syria. It was also a disturbing symptom of the general acceptance — indeed mainstreaming — of drones as a cost-effective, risk- and responsibility-free, omnipresent technology of surveillance and violence. A technology that has facilitated new regimes of remote-control atrocity: Israel’s maintenance of the Gaza Strip as an open-air animal pen for 1.6 million human beings, and the unchecked expansion of the US-led global civil war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. A technology that enables the US to swap the unseemly jingoism of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier for the equally disturbing insouciance of Barack Obama cracking Predator jokes at a black-tie dinner. As a human rights worker, I have seen enough shrapnel wounds and houses bombed out from both kinds of weapons to assure you that the differences do not amount to very much in the end for those whose lives have been destroyed. I do not think it reasonable for you to expect readers to forget this context and treat your op-ed — which takes this mode of warfare as given and merely seeks to share the joy of droning with others — as nothing more than an innocent “thought piece.”


How to cite this article:

The Editors "Letters re: Humanitarian Drones," Middle East Report Online, May 01, 2012.

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