NCHS-Seminar at PRIO tackles the «good drone» and its implications for humanitarian action

With industry representatives, the media, academics and relief workers in attendance, commentators from PRIO, NUPI and UiO tackled the issue of drone use for SAR, relief drops and peacekeeping at a seminar April 22.

Kjersti Lohne (UiO) presented an inventory of ongoing and projected transfer of UAV hardware from military to humanitarian use. In her intervention, Mareile Kaufmann (PRIO) shared her experiences in undertaking an EU-funded project on Drones for Search and Rescue Operations with the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Technology Council.  Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO) described the distributive consequences of the use of UAVs for border surveillance and humanitarian rescue at sea, with respect to EUROSUR’s proposed use of drones. John Karlsrud (NUPI) reflected on the use of drones for peacekeeping missions, sharing examples from his own experience with drones in the MINURCRAT mission in Central African Republic and Chad. Finally, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO)   discussed the relationship between drones, Big data, data protection and humanitarian decision making. Frederik Rosén from the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) chaired the discussion.

With  a proliferation of examples of  proposed benevolent uses of drones, as well as the recent decision to deploy drones to the peacekeeping mission in Eastern Congo, and a request for drones to support the mission in the Ivory Coast, the seminar was seen by panelists and audience alike as extremely timely.  However, as noted by all panelists, this development raises difficult issues with respect to data protection and privacy, as well as posing new challenges to some basic issues of responsibility and obligation under international law.

Drones are part of a larger humanitarian innovation agenda, where there is currently a lot of focus on the need for more careful guidelines on how data can be harvested and used (stored, shared, transferred, analyzed). However, so far, little attention has been given to the need to consider a specific code of conduct for the use of drones in humanitarian operations (broadly understood) or in peacekeeping.

What will it mean that organizations such as the UN or EU/FRONTEX gain access to better surveillance data? Will this automatically mean enhanced human rights protection, or will it instead lead to more focus on force protection or border protection?

In the 1990s, Alex de Waal noted that “one universal tendency stands out: technical solutions are promoted at the expense of political ones.” Participants agreed that this was still a pertinent concern- more data in no way implies action. At the same time, as disaster drones gradually become a reality on the ground (and in civil airspace); there is an urgent need to address what this will mean for humanitarian action.