Mobilizing Social Media for Human Rights

Peter Bouckaert is the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch specializing in the laws of war. He was previously part of fact-finding missions to Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and various other conflicts and has testified before the United States Senate, the ICTY in the Hague, and the Council of Europe. In this interview with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, he discusses the transformative role of digital diplomacy and information sharing via social networks in conflict zones. You can follow Peter Bouckaert on Twitter @bouckap.How has Twitter changed the way you work? How does Human Rights Watch use social media platforms to draw people’s attention to human rights crises?

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve the world’s problems with social media or other technological innovations, but Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms have become powerful tools for the human rights movement. At the core of our work at Human Rights Watch is our on-the-ground impartial investigations of human rights abuses and war crimes. Social media helps us get our information out and put pressure on public officials to stop the killings in the Central African Republic, for example. However, I think we need to distinguish between the kind of fact-driven social media campaigns that we conduct, reporting real-time information from the ground, and the more passive “feel good” social media campaigns that fool you into thinking that retweeting or liking something on Facebook will make a difference.

How do you envision Human Rights Watch’s role in mass atrocity prevention and reporting on crises, especially in situations where there is a lack of political leadership and mainstream news outlets are not giving a particular crisis sufficient media coverage?

The philosophy of Human Rights Watch’s emergency work is simple: we believe that we can save lives and end abuses in conflict zones by impartially reporting on abuses and war crimes in real time. We ensure policy makers have a real-time view of what is happening and are pushed to take appropriate actions to stop the abuses or killings. We try to cut through the fog of war with our reporting, and always report on abuses conducted by all parties to the conflict. We cover the high-profile conflicts that you hear about on the large news outlets, but also try to draw greater attention to underreported crises that urgently require more attention. Our social media campaigns are especially important in the case of underreported crises, because we can influence the media to pay attention to a particular story, thereby mobilizing the public to get involved.

Do you think your live-tweeting from the Central African Republic (CAR) has had an impact on the international community’s response to the crisis there or is political will still lacking? Can these digital tools offer some promise for action against mass atrocities?

Our campaign to draw more attention to the atrocities in the Central African Republic involved a series of strategies, and not just the use social media. First of all, we hired one of the world’s best photographers and documentary filmmakers, Marcus Bleasdale, to work together with me on the ground in CAR, and we collaborated on a number of strategically placed articles inForeign PolicyJeune AfriqueLe Monde, the New York Times, the Washington Post, theTelegraph, and other media outlets that we knew policy makers and the public pay attention to. We contacted Christiane Amanpour at CNN, and other top broadcasters, and worked together on providing major stories for them, especially in situations when they didn’t have correspondents on the ground.

But what was observable to me was how our live reporting from CAR using social media, particularly Twitter, was hugely influential and changed the game. People -from humanitarians to journalists, from diplomats to locals- often approached me in Bangui asking if I am “@bouckap”, which is my Twitter handle. Clearly, many of the decisions that were made in responding to the CAR crisis, whether by the French military or by United Nations and humanitarian organizations, were influenced by the pressure we generated over Twitter. It works, but you need to be reporting reliable information from the ground, as well as images – my followers just love images.

Let me just give one concrete example of the power of Twitter in this crisis. In January, I found myself at the scene of a brutal lynching in Bangui, with anti-balaka fighters literally carving up two Muslim bodies in front of us, just 50 meters away from where French soldiers were standing passively nearby. I tweeted what I saw and within minutes was getting media calls from major French news outlets, including BBC Africa French service, Radio France International, and others. Half an hour later, the French Ambassador and General Soriano, the commander of the French forces in CAR, each called me separately to come see them. They were completely shaken by what Human Rights Watch staff were seeing and tweeting about. The next day, our Paris director was asked to attend a meeting with more than a dozen senior French officials. Of course, it appears that they wanted to control the damage of our tweeting, but they failed to understand that we are constantly on the ground using social media to document and our report human rights abuses, while the French military sends out one press release a week with rosy information that no journalist trusts. A day after, the French army chief of staff flew into Bangui, and a journalist accompanying him burst out laughing upon arrival in Bangui, saying, “All they could talk about on the flight in is “Les tweets de Human Rights Watch“! That is the power of social media, and they felt it.

Can you quantify the type of impact your Twitter reports have had on raising awareness among the global public about the situation in CAR? Has your number of followers greatly increased?

I’m not really a natural person on Twitter, and I use it as a professional tool to get out the message about what was happening in CAR. We really started on December 5, when deadly fighting broke out in Bangui and Bossangoa. That same night, Mandela died, and Thomas Fessy, the BBC correspondent, woke me up, saying, “Mandela died and now we are screwed, the CAR story will be dead as well.” Actually, that was the case, but we both started live-tweeting what we were seeing day to day, and slowly interest in the CAR crisis just skyrocketed on social media, to the point where we were trending, especially in France and other European countries. My number of followers grew from about 2,000 to 13,000, and many tweets I send out were retweeted hundreds of times.  I have a very active group of followers, who are dedicated to digitally working together to stop the killings.

What are the main challenges that you face on the ground?

Using social media to report on the crisis in CAR is quite different from using it to talk about your personal life. It takes a tremendous amount of equipment and effort to assemble the information that we put out on Twitter. We often traveled more than 12 hours a day over very rough roads in a country without infrastructure, and then had to set up camp, start up a generator, hook up a satellite dish, upload the pictures we took that day, and started sending out the information. That’s the main challenge, just getting out to these very remote areas and getting accurate information, dealing with all kind of problems along the way, from broken-down cars to hostile men with guns. It takes a lot of effort to pull that information together. But it makes a difference. I recently met with a top UN humanitarian official in Bangui, I noticed that the majority of the information she had marked on her country map had come from our tweets, being used to plan the humanitarian response for the country. It’s at moments like that that you realize you can make a difference in 140 characters.

In your tweets, you have reported about directly confronting armed groups about abuses committed against civilians. Has it had some kind of effect on them?

Yes, I think it is fundamentally important to confront the armed groups doing the killings directly. You need to do so for several reasons. First of all, they need to know that we are monitoring their crimes, and that they could one day be held accountable for their actions – this does have a deterrent effect. Second, they also need to understand what we are doing in the country.  That we are there to protect all civilians from people trying to hurt them, including the civilians in whose name they claim to fight. We pull no punches at these meetings and make things very clear, but normally they treat us with a lot of respect and deference because they know what we have done for their communities. Ruthless Seleka fighters respect us and thank us for the work we have done to protect Muslims and know we genuinely care about the Muslim communities. Third, we have to confront them because sometimes we do save lives immediately. In 2007 I confronted a rebel leader in CAR about his use of child soldiers. He was so worried about being eventually prosecuted that he didn’t sleep all night and tracked us down the next day and asked us to help in demobilizing the kids he had forced to take up weapons.

Lastly, we also learn a lot about the motivations of those doing the killing during such meetings. In a meeting just last week, an anti-balaka leader in Bohong told me it was really difficult for him to accept that Muslims remained in his town.  He informed us that the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels had burned down all the non-Muslim homes, forcing many to live out in the open while Muslims still had adequate shelter. That unknown fact was clearly a great trigger in the local tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, so I immediately communicated with the humanitarian community to deliver emergency tarps to Bohong as quickly as possible so non-Muslims could rebuild their roofs. You only learn such facts if you talk to people, including rebel leaders.

You have also taken pictures of perpetrators of human rights abuses? Do you think they can be used for eventual prosecution and evidence in to perpetrators accountable?

I normally don’t post too many pictures of perpetrators on social media, but I do take pictures of perpetrators and their crimes for evidentiary purposes. I have testified at war crimes trials before, and the pictures were always important evidence. It is remarkable how perpetrators in CAR have committed the most extreme acts of violence, but are often not bothered at all about letting us film their crimes. In many other crises, I would have to take serious risks to take such images. But this is one of the impacts of the explosion of social media – in some places, people have become so used to being filmed, and filming themselves, that they don’t realize anymore they are being filmed committing crimes. I exposed a rebel group in Libya who executed over 60 prisoners after capturing and killing Qaddafi. They had filmed themselves abusing the prisoners. I just had to match the men in the video with the pictures of the executed bodies I found at a nearby hotel, and we knew who was responsible.

Finally, what can your followers do to help raise awareness and put pressure on leaders to finally send more peacekeepers to CAR?

This campaign only works if my followers help us keep up the pressure by retweeting our information, and by urging others to follow me and Human Rights Watch on Twitter. Our social media work won’t make a big difference if nobody retweeted our information – that is what social media is all about, getting the word out and building up pressure. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the US National Security Advisor Anthony Lake told our Rwanda expert Alison Des Forges that he had one piece of advice for her: “Shout louder”. What he meant is that the only way human rights groups could force governments to act to stop the genocide was to mobilize public pressure. That is exactly what we are still doing today, shouting louder.

This article has been reposted in its entirety from the Canadian International Council.

Putting Our Money Where the Internet Is

It’s time for a global fund for the internet. Civil society is the frontline for the defense of the internet and its users around the world. For years, the efforts of technologists, activists, and academics have kept the internet open and free; in many places today, these same people are best hope against balkanization and government consolidation of control. Despite their heroic and essential efforts, these groups remain chronically under-resourced. It’s time the internet supports its frontline defenders and the future of the net.

Over the past few decades, the internet has grown from a small network connecting a few academics and research institutes into a global network weaving together billions of people, cultures, and interests. Yet despite the rapid pace of growth and innovation, a significant issue has yet to be sufficiently addressed: How do we preserve an open, safe, and innovative internet landscape while avoiding fragmentation and consolidation?

In countries from the United States to the Philippines, from Brazil to Russia, from Jordan to Bangladesh, an active and vocal civil society has been critical in advancing freedom of expression and information, privacy, access, and innovation on and through the open internet.

But despite their successes, these civil society groups remain chronically under-resourced and unequally distributed.  They are perennially absent from many key forums and decisions at the national and global level; struggle to keep up with complex regulatory and technical developments; and often lack the might and resources to engage a wider popular constituency. And although an army of promising new groups have sprung up around the world to defend the internet and the rights of its users, many of them remain fragile and isolated.

To protect the internet from consolidation and control, we need an empowered civil society that can bring together their global resources and local expertise to influence policy and mobilize grassroots support for the internet. Otherwise we risk an internet that is fragmented, poorly regulated and governed by interests that would obstruct the free flow of information across networks and borders.

The next few years will be critical in determining both users’ rights and the business models that underpin the internet. And users face entrenched opposition: powerful governments pursuing their own foreign policy and national security agendas, a host of companies with billions of dollars of revenue on the line, operators willing to trade services and surveillance for the right price.

To address these inequalities protect the interest of users worldwide, civil society requires resources in the form of funding -- and lots of it. That’s why, as Dan Gillmor and others have recently suggested we need to rally resources to the cause. It is time for civil society to form a global fund to protect the open internet and defend the rights of internet users worldwide.

A central role for the fund will be investing in the ability of civil society to positively impact policy decisions at national and global policy forums, develop campaigning skills, build relationships with media for effective public communications, and create space for civil society to share their on-the-ground expertise, strategy and practice .

This new endowment must enjoy long-term funding for a sustained period, and commit itself to working globally. Through a fair, transparent, and inclusive process that is sensitive to participant’s needs and opinions, the new fund could develop three core program funding areas, as follows:

Firstly, Advocacy and Coordination: Funding here will be committed to increasing the coherence and effectiveness of civil society advocacy by providing resources to convene various groups ahead of key decision moments and forums. Programming will focus on increasing collaboration among civil society groups working in related areas; enabling the smooth exchange of information, best practices, and lessons-learned among civil society; and investing in evidence-based innovative policy research and development among civil society groups.

Secondly, Organizational Development: This funding program will build and strengthen civil society’s existing capacity and structures. At the moment, nearly all funding from major foundations, governments, and corporations focuses on specific programmatic outcomes, while neglecting the core infrastructure needed to run effective and healthy organizations. By providing support for core funding, the endowment will develop sustainable core capacities of civil society groups, increase training on issues such as financial management, strategic planning, and fundraising, and facilitate best-practice peer exchanges among the various participating groups. Our battles ahead require strong and resilient infrastructure.

Finally,  Campaign and Communication: An organization’s policy expertise and professional capacity is only as powerful as its ability to find supporters and allies. Funding for campaigns and communication will provide civil society groups with the necessary resources to educate and engage the public, instill the importance of an open internet, and mobilize users creatively both offline and online to protect their rights and freedoms. We need a multistakeholder global movement that can respond to threats as they occur, which is principled, powerful and above all effective.

An open internet is not out of reach. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and even certain governments have an interest in preserving an open and innovative internet that drives innovation, job creation, and economic growth. Private foundations have an interest seeing the groups they support flourish and succeed in their missions. A fund to protect the internet demands that all these players come together and support this effort. Keeping the internet open is the challenge of our times, because it will increasingly be the enabler of all our fundamental rights. The upcoming RightsCon Silicon Valleyin San Francisco provides an excellent forum to develop this idea, and turn it into a reality.

Feature image by Flickr user, Symplio.


Brett Solomon is co-founder and Executive Director of Access ( and founder of RightsCon Silicon Valley. Access defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. By combining innovative policy, user engagement, and direct technical support, the organization fights for open and secure communications for all.

Brett was Campaign Director at, the world’s largest online activist community now with over 19 million subscribers in all 193 countries, and the founding Executive Director of GetUp!, an Australian grass roots online organization with over 600,000 members. Brett was Campaign Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia and prior to that worked at Oxfam Australia, where he founded the International Youth Parliament, an international network of young social change leaders from 140 countries tackling issues such as poverty, conflict and globalization.

Brett sits on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet. His organization, Access, was nominated and shortlisted for the prestigious Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament. Brett is an Arts Law graduate of the University of Sydney and holds a Masters of International Law from the University of New South Wales.

Fireside Chat with Intel CEO, the Enough Project and activist Robin Wright

This article is reposted in its entirety from the Enough Project. On Tuesday, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that its entire 2014 line of microprocessors would be conflict-free making them the first in the rare mineral-heavy industry to completely phase out conflict minerals in one of their products.

This announcement was followed by on Wednesday by a conversation and moderated Q&A with Intel and social activists, including the Enough Project, on the challenge for the electronics industry, as a main users of metals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in making conflict-free products.


Watch the full fireside chat here:

Glancing Back at 2013


This year was rife with important milestones, achievements and events related to the human rights movement. We’ve compiled the milestones that most resonated with us. Let us know what resonates with you in the comments section below. 1) Defeated Militia: Colonel Sultani Makenga, Commander of the M23 rebel group in the eastern DRC, surrendered in Uganda along with 1,700 of his rebel fighters this past November. The M23 were ambushed by the Congolese army (also backed by 3,000 UN fighters) and were forced to either be captured or flee. It was under these pressures that they declared a ceasefire, ending a very bloody 20-month uprising.

2) In RemembranceNelson Mandela, former South African President and beloved anti-apartheid leader, died on December 5th 2013. Widely called “Madiba,” Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for his political activities during apartheid in South Africa.  Despite his imprisonment he preached the importance of reconciliation and represented survival in the struggle for human dignity. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and leaves behind a legacy of equality, justice and freedom.

Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and playwright who won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1995, died on August 30th, 2013. One of his most famous poems spoke of suffering and conflict in Northern Ireland. Below is an excerpt; for the full poem click here.

History says, Don't hope On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.

3) AppointmentsSamantha Power’s appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations began on August 5th, 2013. Power is widely considered one of the most important thought leaders and is most known for her strong human rights background and specifically for her extensive genocide research. She wrote “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” a study on the response of U.S. foreign policy in regards to various cases of genocide. She also authored “Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World,” a book about the heroic life of Sergio Vieira de Mello.

4) Symbol of Defiance: Surviving a gunshot wound to the head for defending her right to an education, Malala Yousafzai continues to promote girls education and serves as an inspirational role model for millions of girls around the world. Malala publically debuted with a moving speech to the UN to mark her 16th birthday.  Malala tells her story of being shot by the Taliban in Pakistan in newly published book, “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban.”

5) Most Perplexing Conflict: Syria’s civil war continues to escalate in intensity, complexity and scope. For more than two years, violent conflict has ravaged this country and has maimed or taken the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and produced an epic refugee crisis with estimates of 6.5 million people now forcibly displaced with little access to aid or security. Widely considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises partly due to the internal chemical weapons attacks that have killed more than 10,000 Syrians, international observers remain baffled as to a viable political (non-military) solution that would result in meaningful peace and lasting stability.

6) More than Meets the Eye: When Edward Snowden, former CIA worker, leaked classified details of the NSA surveillance program, he initiated a controversial, if not historic, debate on privacy vs. security in a post 9/11, digital world, questioning how far the government should go to protect the American public. At the core of this debate is whether the metadata surveillance collected in the name of national security is pursued at the expense of civil liberties, such as privacy rights and freedom of expression. Human rights defenders say current surveillance policies must be reformed to respect privacy and maintain freedom of speech. This is a debate worth following as the implications are serious and far-reaching. For more information click here.

7) Notable Movies: 12 Years a Slave, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Anita and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

8) Favorite Reads: The Lemon Tree, The Glass Palace, Long Walk to Freedom, The Kitchen House, Strength in What Remains.

9) Favorite Tweets

@CivCenter: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” -Kenyan proverb

@AmbassadorPower: Violence against women isn’t cultural, it’s criminal. Equality can't come eventually; we must fight for it now.

10) Stunning Statistic: The NSA tracks 5 billion cell phone records daily!

When the Law is Not Enough: Cholera in Haiti and New Tools for Justice by Abby Goldberg

"It is as if the UN dropped a lit match on a dry field and when a fire began to rage, claimed they were not responsible for the fire.” – Brian Concannon, President, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH)

Law is one of the most powerful tools we have to advance human rights. But law alone is not enough to create real and lasting change. Lawyers and politicians often speak of the importance of global legal infrastructure, such as the International Criminal Court, but legal proceedings are often far removed from the realities of most of the world’s citizens. These international courts are frequented by elites and hear a very limited number of cases; it takes years to prosecute international cases, which are also very expensive. Moroever, states are reluctant to accept international jurisdiction and only hear cases of those most responsible for human rights atrocities leaving most people without a sense of justice. Even when positive human rights precedent exists there are insufficient resources to implement these standards on the ground. While the ideals are important and international law enforceability has grown drastically in recent years, it has a long road ahead.

The citizen and media-driven movements of this past year – from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street – demonstrate that average people have a role to play alongside lawyers in making human rights a reality and accelerating progress for social justice.  Whether in the streets or the courtroom, people demanding their rights are critical to enforceability. In fact, for international justice to become a reality for most people, civil society must take part as active global citizens. Without the involvement of citizens, international systems built to advance human rights will never create sustainable change for most of the world. 

Fight the Outbreak: Cholera in Haiti & the United Nations from New Media Advocacy Project on Vimeo.

A joint legal and media campaign to remedy the outbreak of cholera in Haiti provides a compelling example of the potential power of this synergy.  After the 2010 earthquake, a contingent of UN peacekeepers arrived in Haiti carrying a virulent strain of cholera.  I just returned from Haiti where my organization, the New Media Advocacy Project (N-Map), was producing a film as part of a broader campaign led by our clients, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI)seeking justice and remedies from the UN for more than 5000 victims of cholera who are plaintiffs in the legal case, and formal acknowledgement of the UN’s responsibility for the epidemic in Haiti. If successful, this would be the first case in history to successfully challenge UN immunity and it has the potential both to provide justice for Haitian victims and create groundbreaking precedent that can protect people worldwide.

Since October 2010, more than 500,000 people have been infected with cholera in Haiti; more than 7000 have died and still, 200 or more new cases are reported daily. The UN acknowledges that it introduced cholera into Haiti but claims it is not responsible for the epidemic because of Haiti’s weak infrastructure. As IJDH President, Brian Concannon explains, "It is as if the UN dropped a lit match on a dry field and when a fire began to rage, claimed it was not responsible for the fire.” It simply doesn’t make sense. 

The IJDH and BAI Petitionhas sparked internal debate at the UN and comes a time when people in communities where the UN is deployed have a greater voice in the forces affecting their lives. For the UN to operate successfully, its reputation among locals is paramount; at the same time, acknowledgement would mean the UN is accountable for its actions everywhere – a liability it is reluctant to accept.

The 37-page legal Petition is powerful and persuasive document, but it will never be read by the masses. Most people don’t even know that the UN is responsible for cholera’s introduction to Haiti at all. As long as that remains true, the UN is less inclined to remedy its devastating actions. People, however, hold the power to hold the UN accountable in the court of public opinion.

That is why N-Map and the legal petitioners have joined forces to create a set of short videos as a central part of the strategy to achieve accountability in this challenging case. N-Map is helping to push the case past a tipping point by engaging those whose stories can inspire action. Through interviews with victims, lawyers representing them, and doctors who treated and continue to treat the disease, the videos share critical perspective that can be hard to understand from afar. For example, it is easy for the UN or Americans to paint the Haitian plaintiffs as opportunistic, only pursuing the case for money. One story with a victim who sold all he and his family had to get to the hospital and save his life, however, says more than words possibly could for why individual damages are important. Visual storytelling has added new dimensions and possibilities to human rights enforcement.

From cholera in Haiti to impunity in Punjab, transitional justice and sexual violence in Latin America to mass destruction of property in Armenia, N-Map helps people secure their rights with an innovative take on human rights advocacy.  N-Map’s work builds on the increasing importance of communications technologies and their role in amplifying the voices of affected communities – those demanding their rights and justice – to strengthen the international justice system and make it work on behalf of those it was created to protect. Half public interest law/political strategy group and half media production house, N-Map works with clients to develop hard-hitting media for impact. It’s not making movies but winning cases that drives its work.

All people must take part in making human rights a reality on the ground and N-Map is pioneering new avenues to incorporate the voices of people in the promotion of their global human rights. The law is a tool not an answer. Media can help reach average citizens and engage them as agents of change. Only then will a system of international justice that serves all people, especially the most voiceless and marginalized, be possible.

For more about N-MAP and their other projects, please visit their blog and website by clicking here and here (respectively).Abby Goldberg is the Director of Projects for N-MAP.

Drones for Human Rights by Mark Hanis and Andrew Stobo Sniderman


This op-ed originally appeared in the NY Times and has been re-posted on this blog in its entirety. DRONES are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.

With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and we could start with Syria.

The need there is even more urgent now, because the Arab League’s observers suspended operations last week.

They fled the very violence they were trying to monitor. Drones could replace them, and could even go to some places the observers, who were escorted and restricted by the government, could not see. This we know: the Syrian government isn’t just fighting rebels, as it claims; it is shooting unarmed protesters, and has been doing so for months. Despite a ban on news media, much of the violence is being caught on camera by ubiquitous cellphones. The footage is shaky and the images grainy, but still they make us YouTube witnesses.

Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers. For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria.

An environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has reported that it is using drones to monitor illegal Japanese whaling in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere. In the past few years, human-rights groups and the actor and activist George Clooney, among others, have purchased satellite imagery of conflict zones. Drones can see even more clearly, and broadcast in real time.

We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope. The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be.

This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?

It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly over Syria’s territory may violate official norms of international relations, but governments do this when they support opposition groups with weapons, money or intelligence, as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders.

There are some obvious risks and downsides to the drone approach. The Syrian government would undoubtedly seize the opportunity to blame a foreign conspiracy for its troubles. Local operators of the drones could be at risk, though a higher-end drone could be controlled from a remote location or a neighboring country.

Such considerations figured in conversations we have had with human rights organizations that considered hiring drones in Syria, but opted in the end for supplying protesters with phones, satellite modems and safe houses. For nearly a year now, brave amateurs with their tiny cameras arguably have been doing the trick in Syria. In those circumstances, the value that a drone could add might not be worth the investment and risks.

Even if humanitarian drones are not used in Syria, they should assume their place in the arsenal of human rights advocates. It is a precedent worth setting, especially in situations where evidence of large-scale human rights violations is hard to come by.

Drones can reach places and see things cell phones cannot. Social media did not document the worst of the genocide in the remote villages of Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Camera-toting protesters could not enter the fields where 8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. Graphic and detailed evidence of crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just response, but it helps.

If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.

Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis are co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network.

Featured photo by Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/AP Images.

Welcome to the A3A Blog

first post

After some intense brainstorming and creativity sessions we are proud to reveal the new Article 3 Advisor blog! Here you will find posts regarding the human rights + philanthropy fields as well as recent in-country travel experiences. This blog is meant to raise awareness and spark dialogue about timely human rights issues and innovative philanthropy.

In addition to creating a new blog, we have also created a new, informative website for our human rights consulting practice. Take a look by clicking here. As always thoughts and comments are welcome. We look forward to hearing from you!