Drones – A challenge for conventional arms control

The use of unmanned drones is a much discussed and controversial topic. In particular the United States is internationally criticized for its use of drones, especially in Pakistan. In this context some talk about a downright “drone warfare”. Within the US-American population, there are many sceptics of this mode of warfare, which official sources tend to label as being “surgically precise”. The general mood in the United States is coined by ambivalence: on the one hand, there is a majority of Americans, supporting the military use of drones; on the other hand a survey shows that there is also a majority speaking out against the use of fully autonomous drones.

Present combat drones are working at intermediate levels of automation or even on low levels of automation, where the pilot makes all key decisions – given the technological progress, the possibility of fully autonomous drones are not a far-fetched notion. The already existing conflicts of the use of drones with international law are now being exacerbated by fundamental ethical questions. Already today, critics put the risk of losing human control on the agenda. This concern is accompanied by the endeavor to avoid unnecessary human suffering.

This is also one of the objectives of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) of the United Nations, adopted in 1980. In the framework of the CCW conventional weapons are classified, which are considered as “excessively injurious”, e.g. landmines or incendiary weapons. Signatory countries commit to restrict or even ban the usage of those specific weapons. This year the CCW State Parties gather on November 12/13 in order to negotiate, amongst others, the issue of drones. This is due to the pressure of various NGOs, which have put the topic on the international agenda. Whether a consensual majority on a protocol on autonomous combat drones will be achieved as a result of the CCW bargaining process is uncertain. If this will not be the case, the already very active NGOs might at least try to develop an international norm, which ostracizes the use of drones and consequently increases the political costs of using them; just like it was the case with landmines. In their previous meetings the CCW State Parties at least developed a kind of mutual agreement about the importance to “keep human control” when using drones, but how exactly human control is defined, remains controversial. It remains to be seen if the claims of civil society to respect human dignity, when using drones, will be incorporated in an appropriate mandate in November.

In his contribution to Global Trends 2015 Niklas Schörnig examines these and other challenges for modern arms control (pdf document).