April 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 innocent men, women and children, and has been described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as "an epic failure" of the international community. But, 20 years on, mass atrocities continue unabated in Syria, and few lessons seem to have been learned.

Indeed, said Senator John McCain, as the world commemorated the anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in April: "The United States, along with the international community, failed to take the necessary action to prevent a tragedy in Rwanda. We chose to ignore the death of hundreds of thousands of people, and, in so doing, we forsook our humanity. And now, we are dangerously close to doing the same in Syria."

So far, an estimated 150,000 people have died over the course of the three-year civil war, nine million people have been forced to leave their homes and 2.5 million refugees have escaped the violence by fleeing to neighbouring countries.

However, steps that have been taken by the international community to protect Syrian civilians – such as the passing of Resolution 2139 through the UN Security Council in February, which ordered President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to allow unhindered humanitarian access and threatened further consequences for non-compliance – have been ineffective. Indeed, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Valeria Amos has said that the war of starvation has actually worsened since the resolution was passed, with the Syrian Government continuing to prevent supplies of food from entering opposition held areas – in direct contravention of the UN resolution.

Moreover, economic, military and political support from states such as Russia, China and Iran, has continued to enable the perpetration of humanitarian abuses in Syria. For example, between October 2011 and July 2012, Russia and China vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at holding the Syrian Government accountable for mass atrocity crimes, and both governments continue to support Assad’s regime.

Inarguably, the international community has not yet committed to taking the hard political action necessary to put a stop to the atrocities that continue to occur right in front of its eyes.

Rather, as McCain puts it: "One fact is clear – the world is watching genocide in slow motion."

Unarmed UAVs: low political and economic cost

According to Dr David Whetham, senior lecturer in the defence studies department of King’s College London and author of ‘Eyes over Syria: Using Drones to Monitor Atrocities’, though, there is one option, which hasn’t been considered by the international community and, he believes, could even be sold to the Russians and the Chinese; the deployment of unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or "drones" to monitor – and therefore deter – atrocities in Syria.

"We’re not saying it would be possible to catch everything, but what we would be doing by deploying drones in this way is sending a clear message that we might not be able to stop you now, but we can cross reference the accounts on the ground with very detailed footage from the air; we will find you accountable at some point," he says. "At the end of every conflict, there will be a reckoning. We’ve seen with the Balkans that it might take a decade or longer, but the perpetrators of war crimes can be brought to justice.

"What we’d be sending out is a deterrent – planting the seed of doubt in the minds of the commanders on the ground that they may be being watched and, if they are being, they need to control their units," emphasises Whetham.

"This option would provide an opportunity for the international community to scrutinise the areas in which atrocities are alleged to be taking place at a relatively low political and material cost – the political, of course, being the most problematic.

"The key political issue is that it will be seen as an infringement of sovereignty," he explains. "The UN can authorise an infringement of sovereignty, but there are certain members of the UN who are not likely to look favourably on this." Namely, Russia and China.

However, Whetham believes that doesn’t rule it out as an option.

"It’s a matter of convincing those states that the benefits outweigh the costs," he says. "And a lot of it will be to do with the way it is implemented. It’s clear that there is a lot of pressure to act, and it would appear to me that if it could be sold as a compromise between an international mission that is imposed upon a country and a well-controlled UN observation force from the air – I think it can be sold."

There are many different ways this could be done, Whetham continues: "For example, the UAV feeds could go through to an independent UN team, or you could have members of the national government of the country that the UAVs are being flown over involved with the feeds if necessary, who could raise objections to certain information being put into the public domain. Alternatively, you could have a 24-hour delay on releasing the material. The real challenge is how to control that information."

Military practicalities: not a problem

If the political issues – and, of course, this is still a long shot – could be overcome, Whetham sees few other significant barriers to the solution being implemented.

When it comes to financials, he suggests using the cheapest possible platforms.

"If you lose them, you lose them," he says. "It would be the equivalent of using military ‘off the shelf’ stuff. In fact, you could actually use civilian equipment. You could afford to lose 100 unarmed UAVs before you got to the cost of one high-end missile."

"Inarguably, the international community has not yet committed to taking the hard political action necessary to put a stop to the atrocities that continue to occur right in front of its eyes."

Moreover, if drones were being targeted and shot down in a particular area, surely that would be the area the perpetrators of war crimes didn’t want them to be looking.

"It becomes counterproductive to shoot the UAVs down as well," Whetham explains.

Of course, it’s impossible to get around the fact that deploying drones could force human rights violators underground. But, says Whetham, this is not a problem exclusive to UAVs.

"UN observers have exactly the same issue; the activity moves aware from the UN observers on the round," he notes.
"The advantage with UAVs is that a UN observer team is a very obvious thing moving around, whereas drones are not."

We might not be able to stop you now

Military practicalities are certainly not the biggest barrier to the deployment of unarmed drones; it’s the human and political issues that really need to be addressed – and not just in terms of getting the go-ahead from the UN.

"One of the problems would be, once the international community is provided with categorical evidence of an atrocity, the pressure to actually do something about it increases substantially," Whetham observes. "Then, what are you going to do about it? It’s a big practical question from a political point of view."

In answer to this, Whetham stresses that the discovery of atrocities would not necessarily have to result in immediate military action.

"The practicalities of each situation are going to be very different," he says. "It may well be that the harm of intervening might be even greater than not intervening. But, the point of this is that we’d be making a public statement that we might not be able to stop you now, but we will hold you to account as soon as it is possible to do so."

Indeed, while ideally all footage showing violations of human rights would be passed to the International Criminal Court for individuals to be identified, prosecution cases be built and indictments handed out, this may prove too difficult immediately, in which case the archive data obtained by the drones would make future identification and eventual prosecution of individuals far easier.

"What you’re saying is that there’s at least a chance that if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, it’s going to be watched," Whetham emphasises. "And that’s enough."

Drones: politically toxic

Yet, in this day and age, simply uttering the word "drone" brings to mind something far more chilling than the relatively simple flying cameras Whetham is advocating the use of.

"Drones are politically toxic," he acknowledges. "They’re associated with targeted killing. But this really is
a wasted opportunity.

"This equipment can be used for traffic management, spotting wildfires in the bush or tracking oil spills. In fact, there are so many things that drones can do that simply couldn’t be done otherwise, and it seems to be that monitoring atrocities is only one of those."

Of course, the benefits of drone deployment would not be limited to Syria. In fact, Whetham admits, it will not be easy to stop the mass humanitarian suffering in Syria immediately, or even in the near future, given the current geopolitical issues and ideological deadlock. However, in the near term, this low-cost solution does have the potential to let the people on the ground in Syria know they are being watched, while, looking forward, if observation drones were deployed as a first response when war crimes are reported in other war-torn countries, the impact could be significantly greater.