The emergence of armed drones and how we assess the acceptability of new weapons
“We are establishing standards other nations may follow.”
This was Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, acknowledging that US policy and practice on drone strikes will influence the policy and practice of other states. Concerns over the rapid proliferation of drone technology around the world may provide greater impetus for placing controls in this area.
The problem is that this US policy and practice on drones is far from being a good basis for global standards. The US approach involves deploying, more or less secretly, drones that patrol the skies of other countries around the clock, day after day, with or without these countries’ consent, armed with powerful Hellfire missiles and periodically using these explosive weapons in and around populated areas and then failing to document the civilian casualties they are causing, even defining all the people they kill as legitimate targets because they were killed.
All of this is wrapped in confused and convoluted legal justifications, which the government refuses to make public, making a mockery of international human rights and humanitarian law. These are surely not the sorts of standards other nations should follow.
The discussion on setting standards around the deployment of armed drones raises many important questions in relation to extrajudicial killings, the relationship between human rights and international humanitarian law, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, the failure to document casualties from armed violence, the psychological impact of living under constant threat of a missile strike, the slide towards ever greater autonomy for machines on the battlefield and so on.
Two forthcoming UN reports will hopefully shed more light on the current situation as well provide food for thought on the way forward. Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions will report to the Human Rights Council at its next session in Geneva in May and June. Ben Emerson QC, the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights is investigating the impact of drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories and Somalia.
The fact that this question of international standards is coming up now, rather than before drone development, use and proliferation reached its current advanced state, should give us pause. What discussions, in public or in behind closed doors, took place on the various humanitarian, military, legal and political implications of armed drones before they were developed and deployed? Or did we simply slide into a situation where we looked at our harmless surveillance drones, decided to arm them with missiles and then before we knew it armed drones were the future of warfare?
The nature of conflict is changing. The ICRC has highlighted this in its report on IHL and the challenges of contemporary armed conflict. Some of the challenges noted included the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide area impact; the use of armed drones; and cyber warfare. Under international law, states have an obligation to review new means and methods of war they develop or acquire to make sure they are not illegal. This includes existing weapons or types of attack that might be used or undertaken in different ways. This obligation is enshrined in article 36 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.
As an organisation, Article 36 takes its name from this obligation to review new and changing technologies of killing. We believe that the implementation of this rule is woefully inadequate. A much wider conversation is needed about how we determine whether the means and methods of warfare are compatible with our values as a society. The increasing use of armed drones and the prospect of fully autonomous weapons that would select and engage targets without human intervention are two developments that make this conversation more urgent than ever. By bringing about the banning and stigmatising of landmines and cluster munitions civil society showed how it can help to determine the unacceptability of weapons after they are already in use. As we tackle the question of how to set standards around the use of armed drones and how to prevent the next step towards fully autonomous weapons, civil society will again have a role to play.