The Critical Humanitarian Technology Project 2013: The Rise of the Good Drone

Invited Writers Workshop by NCHS

Please note: This page refers to an event that has already taken place.

Time: Thu, 05 September 2013 08:00
Place: PRIO, Hausmanns gate 7, Oslo

​​The objective of this workshop, organized by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS)​, is to interrogate the contemporary rise of the “good drone” in the shadow of high profile discussions related to the drone wars, spy UAVs and killer robots. By inviting a multidisciplinary group to identify and reflect on various facets of this emergent concept, we hope to begin a critical conversation on the political, legal and social ramifications of potentially benevolent usages of UAVs in conflicts, natural disasters and societal emergencies – and on the manner in which humanitarian rationales are used to provide legitimacy for UAV R&D, procurement and deployment. The humanitarian enterprise is characterized by considerable optimism regarding the improvement of humanitarian action through technology.

Of particular interest here is the potential humanitarian use of drones- so called disaster drones- for crisis mapping, search and rescue, and relief drops. As of 2013, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UN DPKO) has a mandate to use drones in the DR Congo peacekeeping mission. Frontex is currently exploring their possible deployment along the EU external border in the Mediterranean, with the aim of protecting Europe against unwanted entries, and saving more boat migrants’ lives. What are the implications of these developments=?

Drones were initially developed for military uses, and have been deployed regularly in conflict since the Vietnam War. While the debate globally remains focused on the use of drones in the US campaign of “targeted killings”, both military actors and the UAV industry increasingly attempt to market drones as “humanitarian”. According to critics, as the drone lobby gains more influence in domestic politics across the West, there is a general lack of political and fiscal oversight- the latest example is the German Eurohawk debacle- and insufficient attention has been given to legal issues such as data protection, privacy, and liability. There is deep public skepticism –and increasing resistance- to both civil and military drone use.

In this context, the “good drone” itself, arising out of a dual-technology scheme, emerges as a new form of moral economy. Not only is an initially military technology increasingly marketed as being able to fulfill humanitarian functions, but it appears that these attributes are then reembedded as metaphysical yet latent qualities of the drones hardware (unmanned flight, payload and surgically precise offloading of munitions) and software (sophisticated data collection and imagery analysis) capabilities. According to this logic, drone pilots become humanitarian workers and weaponized drones become “humanitarian technology”, perfectly suited to fulfill the requirements of armed humanitarian interventions under R2P mandates and increasingly aggressive UN peacekeeping operations.

There is a burgeoning scholarship on the drone wars and the future use of autonomous drones, as well as an emerging academic concern with civil airspace usage of drones. So far, little systematic attention has been devoted to identify the costs and benefits to humanitarian action, peacekeeping and migration management (including issues of accountability, effectiveness and cost efficiency), or to unpack the relationship between dual use technology and the boomerang function of the humanitarian rhetoric. To that end, this workshop will examine the “good drone” as a political, ethical and legal concept.

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