Drones: For Good or for Bad?

By Celeste Kauffman*

 

Drones, technically called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are aircrafts that are either controlled remotely by pilots or autonomously via a pre-programmed mission. They are much less expensive than traditional planes or helicopters, and are capable of flying much longer than manned flights. Drones may be armed with missiles and are currently used in counter-terrorism and other military attacks. While media coverage of armed drones has focused on the attacks by the US in Pakistan and Yemen, and Israeli attacks in Gaza, these countries are losing their monopoly on drone warfare as drone technology spreads to other states, particularly in the global South.

By late 2013, at least 87 states had access to drones, of which 14 are in Latin America. Twenty-six of the 87 countries have drones equivalent in size to the famous MQ1 Predator drone. Countries of  the global South are showing increased interest in drones for use in national law enforcement, combating drug traffickingmilitary uses and surveillance, and many have R&D programsto develop their own drones.

Drones are currently unregulated in most countries (with the exception of Brazil), but it is likely that many countries in the South will follow the policy the US has for the use of armed drones and the shaky legal arguments they give to support it. The US model gives the executive branch expansive powers and provides little regulation regarding military uses. But what precedent has the US set with respect to armed drones?

US drone policy has been roundly criticized domestically and internationally for violating international humanitarian and human rights law in many different ways. Drone attacks are not as error-proof as the US claims, and they have caused a number of civilian deaths and injuries. The attacks also traumatize those that live in the area surrounding the drone attacks. Rather than combating terrorism, drone attacks often lead to higher recruitment for terrorist groups due to  increased anti-American sentiments. Americans themselves are victims of their own policy, as attacks have targeted US citizenswithout any form of due process.  Furthermore, the entire drone program is operated in secrecy, with no transparency or oversight.

The US has set a dangerous precedent of disregarding well-established principles of international law, especially the principle of state sovereignty. Many drone attacks have been carried out without the consent or even knowledge of the host state, a clear violation of state sovereignty. One need only recall the diplomatic tensions that arose in 2008 when Colombia violated this principle by sending troops into Ecuador to capture a leader of the FARC to understood how undesirable and dangerous these types of violations are.

With regards to drone targets, international humanitarian law (IHL) determines who may be legitimately targeted in armed conflict, while international human rights law (IHRL) applies in situations other than armed conflicts. The US claims that every male in the vicinity of a drone attack is a combatant and therefore a legitimate target violate both IHL and IHRL, and uses the same argument for attacks on first responders. The US appears to be disregarding both international law doctrines to monitor and kill individuals in foreign countries that it considers dangerous, rather than using international criminal law or diplomacy.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the US’ loose regulation of drone attacks, from a democratic standpoint, is its refusal to make public the criteria it uses to make decisions regarding targeted killing and open it to public review. The US does not have a stellar track record regarding transparency and accountability, but there are countries with worse records. Arming repressive regimes with drones and allowing them to have policies of absolute secrecy and opaqueness would be incredibly dangerous.

While the US has not used armed drones domestically, countries in the South are already exploring the possibility of doing so for law enforcement and anti-drug trafficking activities. The rights violations caused by a disregard for international law, particularly human rights law regarding transparency, accountability, due process, and privacy, would only be worse in a domestic context, since governments may be tempted to use drones to target those within their borders who they consider their enemies.

Drones are an amazing technology, capable of helping the world become a safer, more humane place. For example, in 2012, the Gates Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to researchers to develop drones that transport vaccines to rural locations. Also, during humanitarian relief efforts in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, NGOs employed drones to improve their response efforts. It is disheartening that in the absence of any effective international regulation of drones, the US has chosen to use this technology to undermine global rule of law and security and setting a dangerous legal precedent for other countries to follow. Nonetheless, the US’ failure gives the global South a perfect opportunity to take a leading role in using drones in a way that respects international law and human rights, and to take steps to ensure their effective regulation.

 

* Celeste Kauffman is a researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)