Discussion on armed drones at the UN General Assembly First Committee
During UN General Assembly First Committee, Article 36 was 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:
Only a small number of states and one NGO addressed armed drones in their statements at the first week of First Committee.
The Netherlands, Costa Rica and Venezuela expressed concern regarding the upholding of existing law in the use of armed drones, with Portugal and the NGO PAX also noting legal concerns. Ireland also noted human rights concerns. Venezuela condemned the use of drones for extrajudicial killing. The Netherlands stated that existing law should be adequate to regulate armed drones, but clarification and dialogue was needed regarding certain issues in the use of force and deployment of weapons. Costa Rica drew attention to the danger of governments reinterpreting key legal principles regarding the right to life and the protection of civilians in their use of drones, noting concern at the use of armed drones outside of conflict zones. PAX observed that the fact that specific legal justifications had to be developed for drones indicated their problematic nature.
Beyond legal concerns, Costa Rica stated that armed drones also contribute to the dehumanization of conflict and the terrorizing of populations. Costa Rica and PAX also noted that drones serve to reduce the threshold for the use of force, with PAX also drawing attention to wider military and political implications of drones as well as proliferation. Ireland and Portugal also noted moral and humanitarian concerns with the use of armed drones.
On moving the issue forward, Costa Rica called for more action to address armed drones, calling on the UN through its disarmament bodies to lead on measures for greater transparency and accountability. The Netherlands and Portugal also promoted discussions on transparency and upholding the law, with Portugal calling for the establishment of regulatory frameworks if necessary, and PAX for a clear international standard to tackle the problems drones pose as well as transparency and accountability, rather than continuing with a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Burkina Faso called on states to exercise political will and flexibility in addressing a number of new disarmament challenges including those posed by armed drones. Ireland called for more consideration by the international community of the issues of use and proliferation of armed drones. Pakistan stated that there was an urgent need to check the development of armed drones, and that new international regulations were needed, with Venezuela also calling for legal regulation in particular on the speed of production of drones.
A number of states raised concerns during the conventional weapons debate over the use of armed drones.
Ireland welcomed continued discussion on the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), “including the relevant principles and norms of international law across both CCW and human rights spheres.” Costa Rica noted its concern with “the use of armed drones to carry out selective killings outside of armed conflict zones.” Referring to the recent study conducted by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Costa Rica said this study “should serve as a basis for a much wider debate on this topic.” That debate “should be framed by considerations of the humanitarian impact of armed drones, among these human rights, international humanitarian law and the dimensions of human security, as well as moral and ethical standards.”
Pakistan argued that “the dual nature of new and emerging technologies,” including armed drones, “present unique challenges in terms of definitions, scope, application and interpretation of existing international law.” Pakistan suggested such technologies would lower the threshold for armed conflict because “they reduce or eliminate the risk of human casualties for the user states.”
Ecuador encouraged the international community to “deepen the debate about armed UAVs and fully autonomous armed robots.” Highlighting the high number of victims form the use of drones in civilian areas and their use for extrajudicial executions, Ecuador called for urgent and serious discussion in this area. Israel’s concerns on this topic were limited to the transfer of drones to “terrorists.”
Final week 2-6 Nov:
There was not a high volume of discussion on the subject of armed drones among states at First Committee this year. No resolutions were put forward regarding drones, and only nine states made reference to drones in their statements during the general and conventional weapons debates. These states were Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Portugal and Venezuela. This nevertheless represented an increase in the number of states raising issues around drones in comparison to 2014’s First Committee.
Dutch NGO PAX gave a statement on drones in the NGO segment. Drones were also the subject of two new reports presented at First Committee: a study by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) prepared for the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, and a paper by PAX on the proliferation of drone technology. A well-attended side event chaired by Costa Rica was also held, with participation from these two institutions as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Foundation, who outlined legal issues and raised concerns regarding the narrative of precision surrounding drone strikes.
Concerns relating to the implementation and interpretation of existing law were raised by a number of states in their statements to First Committee, as well as in PAX’s statement. Moral and ethical concerns around drones, as well as the concern that their availability reduces the threshold for the use of force, were also highlighted. Israel noted the concern of proliferation to “terrorist” groups. States also raised and called for a variety of steps that could take the issue forward, such as greater transparency and more in-depth and wider discussion. A number identified the need for new international standards or regulations to address the various concerns associated with drones.
UNODA’s report highlights that the strict application of international law could alleviate some concerns regarding drones, but that further actions were needed to address ethical, moral and political concerns. Further study, greater transparency, and multilateral discussions are called for by UNODA as essential towards addressing the drones issue. Costa Rica noted in the conventional weapons debate that the UNODA study should provide a basis to enable a wider debate on the topic of drones – and that such debate should be framed in terms of humanitarian impacts, moral and ethical standards, and the standards provided by international law in order to be productive going forward.
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