Discussion on armed drones at the UN General Assembly First Committee
During UN General Assembly First Committee in 2016, Article 36 is following how states were discussing armed drones, and which states were drawing attention to these issues. Our week by week accounts, first published in Reaching Critical Will‘s First Committee Monitor, are reproduced here:
3 October – 7 October
During the first week of the general debate, only four countries mentioned armed drones in their statements, along with Kim Won-soo, the Under Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
The Netherlands raised concerns in its statement this week similar to those that it highlighted at First Committee in 2015. The Dutch statement emphasised the issue of proliferation, both amongst states and in particular to non-state actors, as a key issue with respect to armed drones. Stating the applicability and importance of upholding existing law, and the need for greater transparency in the export and use of armed drones, the Netherlands stated its commitment to an “open international dialogue … in order to guarantee transparent and responsible use.”
Venezuela lamented what it saw as the predictability with which armed drones have been used in an irresponsible and illegal manner by states and non-state groups, and expressed regret that the risks presented by new technologies have been neglected by the international community. Ecuador expressed concern over the increased use of armed drones along with its position on the challenge of autonomous weapons systems, noting serious moral, legal, and humanitarian concerns. Last year at First Committee these states both noted concern at the use of armed drones for extrajudicial killings, with Venezuela urging legal regulation and Ecuador calling for urgent discussion of the issue and highlighting the number of victims resulting from airstrikes undertaken using armed drones.
Raising armed drones along with other “new challenges” such as autonomous weapons, cyber, and outer space, Lebanon called for the regulation of the use of these technologies “in a universal and inclusive manner based on the principles of Human rights and International Humanitarian Law.” Lebanon has not spoken on the issue of armed drones at First Committee during at least the past three sessions.
Finally, Kim Won-soo noted progress at the UN Register of Conventional Arms with respect to armed drones, with the Governmental Group of Experts on the Register recently recommending that such systems be included in the categories for reporting (see UN document A/71/259). The Register is a voluntary tool through which governments may report their international imports and exports of arms. A resolution to formally adopt this recommendation, which specifically refers to “unmanned combat aerial vehicles,” is expected at First Committee.
10 October – 21 October
During the past fortnight, six states raised armed drones in their statements to First Committee, along with the Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts on the UN Register on Conventional Arms, Ambassador Paul Beijer of Sweden. A joint statement endorsed by forty-four civil society organisations, focused on the need for international action to prevent and mitigate harm from armed drones, was given during the informal NGO presentation session. A side event on armed drones hosted by the Netherlands and PAX was also held last Monday.
The NGO statement on armed drones, endorsed by organisations from fourteen countries and regions, highlighted the harm caused by armed drones; the wide range of concerns expressed by states, civil society organisations, and UN experts and bodies on this subject; the necessity of rejecting use of armed drones that erodes the boundaries that should constrain harm and facilitates the expansion of use of force practices normally associated with the conduct of hostilities; and the need for open and transparent collective action on this matter.
At the thematic debate on conventional weapons, the United States and Ambassador Beijer noted the inclusion of “unmanned combat aerial vehicles” within the reporting categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms. The US has not remarked on the subject of armed drones at First Committee for at least the last three sessions.
Costa Rica reflected on issues civil society has raised, including armed drones’ use being characterised by a lack of accountability and transparency, eroding democratic controls and oversight over the use of force; the humanitarian impact of drones as well as concerns around the implementation of human rights and international humanitarian law; and UN studies on this question. Costa Rica declared that it was time to move beyond words and take action on the use of drones outside of “areas of active hostilities.”
Ireland noted that the use of armed drones must conform with international humanitarian law and human rights law, and called for continued discussion at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and in human rights forums. Venezuela reiterated its condemnation given in the general debate of the use of armed drones for extrajudicial killings and violations of international law.
Venezuela also asserted that the proliferation of armed drones amongst states and non-state actors such as ISIS was predictable given the lack of regulation or response to this issue. During the debate on other weapons of mass destruction, Bangladesh expressed concern at the possibility of the use of commercial drones to deliver chemical weapons. Botswana expressed general concern regarding armed drones and autonomous weapons during the conventional weapons debate.
During its statement, Ireland also welcomed the recent “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” issued by the US earlier this month with the support of forty-eight other states, and also welcomed follow-up on this document. At Monday’s side event, the Ambassador of the Netherlands reported that his country was aiming to host a meeting on the declaration in April 2017, whose aim would primarily be to increase its number of supporters. The Netherlands and Ireland are the only states endorsing the declaration that have raised armed drones in their statements to First Committee this year. Panelists and the audience at the side event raised the weakness of the document’s provisions compared to those of the Arms Trade Treaty, and discussed the opportunities and risks presented.
The side event panel included Wim Zwijnenburg of PAX, Alex Moorehead of Columbia University, and Nureen Shah of Amnesty International, and was moderated by Alexandra Hiniker of PAX. Issues presented included the importance and limits of transparency; recent disclosures about US practice in the use of armed drones; and the current state of drone proliferation worldwide. Jessica Dorsey of PAX also presented the call to action of the European Forum on Armed Drones.
24 October – 2 November
During First Committee this year, only ten states spoke about armed drones. This low volume of debate was comparable to 2015’s First Committee, at which nine states spoke on the subject. Of the states that spoke—Bangladesh, Botswana, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Venezuela, and the United States—six had raised the issue in the last session, when they outlined broadly similar concerns (Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, the Netherlands, Pakistan, and Venezuela).
The range of concerns expressed by these states included: the risks posed by the growing proliferation of armed drone technology; the particular dangers that states considered to result from non-state actors acquiring armed drones; concerns around upholding international humanitarian and human rights law in the use of armed drones; broader humanitarian, moral, and ethical issues; the possibility of drones being used to deliver weapons of mass destruction; and the consideration of drones within new challenges posed by developing technologies, including lethal autonomous weapons systems. A number of states also called for greater collective efforts to address armed drones.
A joint statement endorsed by forty-four civil society organisations from fourteen countries and regions was given at First Committee this year, which focused on the need for international action to prevent and mitigate harm from armed drones. The call to action of the European Forum on Armed Drones, endorsed by twenty-two groups, was also presented at a side event hosted by the Netherlands and PAX. The call asks governments to take action on the articulation of their policies, transparency, accountability, the prevention of complicity in illegal acts and proliferation.
Only one resolution tabled this year was relevant to the subject of armed drones: L.21 on transparency in armaments, which adopts and requests the implementation of the recommendations of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the UN Register on Conventional Arms. In its 2016 report (see UN document A/71/259), one of the GGE’s recommendations was that “unmanned combat aerial vehicles” be included in the categories of reporting for the Register. The United States, as well as Kim Won-soo, the Under Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, and Ambassador Paul Beijer of Sweden, Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts on the UN Register on Conventional Arms remarked on this development in statements to First Committee. No states mentioned armed drones during the vote on L.21, which passed 151-0-28. Explanations of vote concentrated on issues around weapons of mass destruction, small arms and light weapons, and the Arms Trade Treaty.
In the coming year, the political “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” issued by the United States with the support of forty-eight other countries, may provide one focus for states’ activities in this policy area. A meeting on the declaration was announced by the Netherlands at the First Committee side event on armed drones, which will take place in April.