Eyes in the sky: Gathering evidence with drones | The Listening Post (Feature)

Sometimes the capturing of an image or a single video can have a transformative effect. George Floyd’s killing is an example. The eight-minute, 46-second video speaks for itself. That is why it sent so many Americans onto the streets. And anyone contending with state violence, whether they are in Minneapolis, Hong Kong or the Middle East, knows that sometimes all they need to prove their point – to expose illegality – is the right picture.

That is why mobile phone footage fills news broadcasts. It is why journalists and investigators have turned to images from space – satellite pictures – to expose China’s secret Uighur prison camps.

However, there are some places where satellites and phones cannot go; the space between. That is where drones come in. The Listening Post’s Tariq Nafi spoke with three voices from different fields, on how drones are being used to provide irrefutable photographic evidence of human rights abuses and illegality.

“Drones give you a very exciting ability to collect not just powerful, graphic and compelling imagery and video,” Josh Lyons, Geospatial Analyst at Human Rights Watch explained, “but new types of information that we haven’t collected before and really couldn’t have collected before.”

Lyons recently tested the limits of this technology in northeast Syria, descending into what was once a natural beauty spot – al-Hota gorge – and has since become a place of reckoning and death. It was a drone that exposed that ISIL, also known as ISIS, had turned a family picnic spot into a mass grave.

“What it showed us was something we had not expected. Bodies, human remains, that were obviously fresh,” says Lyons. “And it was clear from the imagery that these people had been thrown into al-Hota within the last two weeks approximately. And so it raised a whole range of new questions. Who put these bodies in there? Why are they there? And what lies below that water surface? But the drones also provided us with key bits of evidence that we needed to help argue and advance for professional forensic exhumation of this site.”

Drones let investigators reach places covertly, and see things, some would prefer to remain unseen – like illegality in the Amazon of Peru. That is where Juan Bergelund, Country Manager of Peru Flying Labs, is using drones to protect the environment and monitor illegal mining.

“We can be in the air for two or three hours and then we can monitor everything that they [are] doing, without them even noticing,” explains Bergelund. “So with all this information, we go through the authorities and we show what they were doing, not only this week, but the previous week, the previous month and so on. So that’s why by combining all these new technologies we may be able to present the authorities with significant evidence.”

Combining mobile phone footage, satellite and drone imagery is the best way to build an airtight case, says Kelly Matheson, a human rights attorney with the NGO, Witness. The work she does revolves around how communities can use video evidence to bring about justice.

Asked by The Listening Post what makes drone footage such a powerful medium, Matheson said: “From an environmental perspective, I think there’s a lot of people out there who believe that we, as humanity, can’t destroy the world. We don’t have that power, the Earth is too powerful and will bounce back. But I think often times when you see that drone footage of the destruction that’s happening right before our eyes, it allows us to imagine the unimaginable. It allows us to observe what can’t otherwise readily be observed. And I think it’s powerful for us to be able to see how we are destroying the planet and in turn destroying our own chances of survival.”

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Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR), is a metropolitan area and special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China on the eastern Pearl River Delta of the South China Sea. With over 7.5 million residents of various nationalities in a 1,104-square-kilometre (426 sq mi) territory, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the Qing Empire ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1842. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The whole territory was transferred to China in 1997. As a special administrative region, Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems”.

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