The Obama administration has launched over 390 drone strikes during its first five years. The first was launched on January 23, 2009, and resulted in 9 civilian deaths. It was followed by a later strike deployed by the CIA, which killed between five and 10 people – again, all civilians.
Fast forward to 2014 and there have been over 2,400 people killed by these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), at least 273 of them reportedly civilians.
While al Qaeda commanders and operatives have allegedly been ‘eliminated’ in the covert drone war in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; it has also resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties in the process, despite Obama touting UAVs as being incredibly precise and effective weapons.
Obama became the first senior U.S. official in 8 years to openly address the covert drone war, declaring “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.” He further emphasized that the CIA only targets al Qaeda and its associated forces, and even then, the use of drones is very limited.
In the same vein, Obama noted that Congress is briefed on all potential targets before any action is taken, indicating that great oversight is taken to reduce any risk of collateral damage.
One obvious concern is the legality of drones according to international law and international human rights law. Obama justifies the legality of targeted killings by referring back to the 9/11 attacks, when Congress hurriedly authorized the use of force within one week of the attacks without proper deliberation or public debate.
Unlike the negative uses of lethal drones, the uses of humanitarian drones have recently entered national public discourse which offers an alternative, more humane way of using drones.
Technological solutionists envision drones as the solution for reconciling ethnic conflicts, locating survivors amid natural (or human) destruction, and even detecting body-temperature surveys of populations to pinpoint epidemic outbreaks.
Other uses for humanitarian drones include crisis mapping, search and rescues, cargo transport and relief drops in to hard-to-reach or conflict-ridden zones. They are versatile and provide a number of possibilities for absolving food insecurity, providing much-needed medical aid and alleviating poverty overall.
The advantages for using a drone for humanitarian crises are evident. The inherent capabilities of a drone do not require human pilots, thereby decreasing personal risk. Drones have the ability to fly over and collect information in isolated and conflict-stricken regions without posing physical threats. Further, the pilots controlling the drones thousands of miles away are able to assess the situation in real time and act accordingly.
There are already several examples of drones being used for good. One noteworthy example occurred in January 2013, when the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of drones for a peace-building mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Prior to this, international troops used them in Chad, the Central African Republic and Haiti following the earthquake. The deployment of drones will be used for information-gathering purposes about movements of troops or militia groups, and about refugee and displaced populations.
Drones can also be used during natural disasters, as in Typhoon Haiyan, where civil drones were used for detailed aerial mapping, to detect people on the ground that may have needed assistance. This was ideal as the area was incredibly difficult to access on-the-ground.
Like any modern technology used primarily for military purposes, the usage of humanitarian drones comes with many challenges.
The first concern is the ethics behind data collection (who collects the information and under what banner), data analysis, data retention (how long will data be kept) and accessibility. These privacy issues are crucial to address in order to ensure transparency and accountability regarding a technology that has already left the public largely in the dark, especially in light of recent revelations exposing the extent to which the National Security Agency (NSA) is engaging in mass surveillance of citizens and officials at home and abroad.
Further, despite the good intentions of using humanitarian drones, their uses abroad may raise more suspicion, dread and fear among locals. Locals would not be able to recognize the differences between military and humanitarian drones.
Meanwhile, April 21 marked the third consecutive day of drone strikes in Yemen, reportedly killing 55 al Qaeda militants – the number of civilians killed remains unclear. The attacks have been described as part of “massive and unprecedented” operations targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
To date, there has been no major international aid or development agency that has announced their intentions to acquire or deploy significant numbers of drones for aid operations. Some believe that drone use will likely remain within the realm of the military, but as recent developments prove, perhaps the wide use of civilian and humanitarian drones may not be so far away.
The question remains: is the potential use for humanitarian drones another example of technological solutionism whereby people blindly celebrate the possible uses without considering the potential ramifications, or will the usage of humanitarian drones be the long awaited solution to increase stability and food security in developing countries?