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Activists Turn to Drones to Uncover Human Rights Abuses

Activists Turn to Drones to Uncover Human Rights Abuses

Human rights activists, environmental groups and enterprising journalists increasingly are turning to drones to uncover abuses. Pilotless aircraft are being used not only by governments for surveillance and military attacks.

A recent YouTube video shows a miniature helicopter called a RoboKopter equipped with a video camera, overlooking protesters and Polish police in riot gear in Warsaw.

An Internet website called the Future Journalism Project highlighted this recent endeavor.

The website also mentions an experimental laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study the possibilities of so-called "drone journalism" -- sending flying cameras with global positioning devices over newsworthy events to capture video that viewers want to see.

On its website, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society details some of its strategies to confront illegal whaling. These apparently include using drones, which the activist group says it used in December to monitor oceans in the Southern Hemisphere.

Andrew Stobo Sniderman, a co-founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, recently wrote an article published in The New York Times newspaper called "Drones for Human Rights."

The human rights activist says a lot can be gained from drone-obtained information about conflict zones such as Syria or the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"There are circumstances we can think of where this would be a helpful tool to just get more detailed information about exactly what is happening, where governments are killing large numbers of their own citizens," Sniderman said.

Sniderman says simpler drones cost tens of thousands of dollars, while more advanced commercial ones cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he says major human rights organizations can afford.

But when drones violate a country's airspace, this type of information gathering is illegal. It also leads to fears by many of a world where no one knows when they are being watched or by whom.

But Sniderman says a good cause justifies the use of human rights monitoring drones.

"Technology can be used for good and for ill, and all we are suggesting is that human rights groups should give very serious thought about how to use this new technology to help document abuses. Human rights groups have always done this. The question is can we use drones to do this even better than what we already do," he said.

Sniderman says aerial video footage of human rights abuses taken by drones and not available through other means could lead to a more effective response to what is happening.