Tag Archives: Drones

A Game of Drones

20 Dec

Editor’s Note:  For the past three months, Tereza Steinhublova has focused her attention on peace and security matters related to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. While writing for Reaching Critical Will’s First Committee Monitor, she focused particularly on the issue of drones which, as she notes, must continue to receive much more policy attention, not only in the disarmament community, but in the human rights community as well.

The word drone comes up frequently in numerous contexts. Not only are drones brought up in the security world, but they are slowly growing in popularity in other fields as well. For instance, the computer game SimCity, which allows you to build your own virtual city, now comes with an option to replace the city’s entire security forces with drones. In fact, replacing the traditional police and security forces with drones gives the player many benefits! In the real world, Amazon announced its proposal of using small drones to deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes of their order. Similarly, big companies such as Google and Apple have also expressed their interest in robotics. Finally, the Internet continues to be flooded with political cartoons depicting controversies surrounding drone use.

Drone use is primarily justified as a counter-terrorism measure, including intelligence gathering. To what extent this is an effective method to fight terrorism is debatable. Although several high-ranked members of terrorist groups have been killed thanks to drone strikes, they have always been replaced instantly. Often in these cases the person taking over has more hardline views, thus posing a greater terrorism threat. Besides, many of those killed and identified as belonging to terrorist organizations are low-ranked members, rather than leaders. Furthermore, there have been instances where civilians have been killed either because of targeting errors or as ‘collateral damage’. On December 12, 2013, missiles from a US drone attacked a wedding procession in Yemen, killing over a dozen people. The drone is said to have mistaken the wedding vehicles for a militant convoy.  In response to this tragic event, the Yemeni parliament called for an end of the use of US drones in Yemen. This isn’t the only occasion of when a drone mistakenly killed civilians. On October 6, 2013, the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, criticized NATO for its drone use, as five civilians died as a result of an airstrike. Earlier this fall a Pakistani family, who survived a drone attack that unfortunately killed their grandmother, came to Washington DC to speak to Congress about how drones are really affecting those living in areas where drones are frequently deployed.

It is crucial to note that not all drones are used solely for combat purposes. However, surveillance drones still pose questions about the extent to which these invade privacy and violate state sovereignty.  There are also questions about how to assess legal responsibility in cases where person are killed without cause.

In comparison with the frequency of drone appearances in the news, games or popular media, international policy deliberations on the use of drones remain surprisingly thin. During this year’s session of First Committee, I paid much attention to drones and fully autonomous weapons and much to my surprise the discussion on drones was minimal. The topic was mentioned by a shockingly low number of states, with most input from the delegation of Pakistan. Also, the First Committee did not create a single resolution focused on drones. This comes as a surprise, not only because of the many civilian casualties involved, but also due to the continuing controversy surrounding drones. In November, the 2013 Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) produced a mandate to discuss killer robots, which is a great development forward in the field of robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles. Nonetheless, the issue of armed drones as they exist now was once again unaddressed. I believe there needs to be a thorough discussion on drones in order to provide a basis for  a broader  dialogue on fully autonomous weapons.

Although drones are predominantly associated with the US, approximately 87 countries possess drones mostly used for purposes of spying. While the number of countries with armed drones remains low, it does not mean that this number will not grow. Much of the focus in the international policy sphere remains on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for instance, while drone proliferation remains largely unaddressed. Warfare technology is already being developed in many states and if armed drone use continues, it is highly likely that more states will develop armed drones as well.  More importantly, if terrorist groups or non-state actors already considered as a security risk were to develop an armed drone, this would create a serious international peace and security issue, because drones would be used directly against civilians. The world could therefore ‘log on’ to this ‘game of drones’ before it has adequately prepared for it or attempted to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Unfortunately, there are many political strings attached to the drone debate. With most armed drone use carried out by the United States, the number of states willing to officially criticize this policy remains low. However, it is important to consider how this debate would change if the affected countries’ roles were reversed, if the states using drones for military purposes had to deal with drone attacks themselves.  Drones carry many ethical and legal questions, namely with humanitarian and human rights law. The fact that drones are controlled through a computer from a base already creates controversy and brings up a debate about the wisdom of the ‘distancing’ of warfare. The relationship between drones and international law remains precarious. It is often argued that drones do not comply with international law, because they undermine state sovereignty and are incompatible with the legal definition of the zone of conflict. The international community therefore needs to work to create a space for a dialogue, which would clarify existing doubts and develop new guidelines. The international community must work towards establishing a reliable system of governance for these weapons before the ‘game of drones’ plays out beyond the reach of state’s control.

Tereza Steinhublova, Junior Associate