Drones Deployed during War raise Various Legal and Ethical Questions


Drones can be used for many different purposes. The use of drones raises various legal and ethical questions ranging from humanitarian to privacy issues. The Peace and Security Salon of 9 April discussed these questions in the context of the deployment of armed drones and robots during wartime. Three specialists each discussed the use of drones from a different background.

Drones can be used for many different purposes.  The use of drones raises various legal and ethical questions ranging from humanitarian to privacy issues.

The Peace and Security salon of 9 April discussed these questions in the context of the deployment of armed drones and robots during wartime. Three specialists each discussed the use of drones from a different background.

First Remy Jorritsma LL.M., the moderator for this evening gave an in depth introduction into the subject. Hereafter he shortly introduced the speakers.

The first speaker, Professor Terry Gillprofessor of military law at the University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Defence Academy discussed the legal perspective regarding the deployment of drones during warfare. During his talk he described and defined Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS). He also discussed whether UAVs and AWS are compatible with existing law (legal bases and regimes) and described the main controversies regarding UAV strikes. Professor Terry Gill then outlined the main challenges and legal questions concerning the potential use of AWS.  He concluded that UAVs can be used both legally and illegally. For example, if an airstrike would be carried out by a manned aircraft such as an F-16, the strike would be equally legal when carried out by a drone (UAV) and vice versa

According to professor Gill there are potential scenarios in which AWS could be lawfully used. The legality of the potential use of AWS depends on the question whether such weapons are used for tasks which allow for the application of IHL rules and principles relating to the targeting of persons and whether the weapon is capable with more or less human involvement to comply with these. However, there may be reasons to limit the potential use of such weapons, particularly when deployed in urban or dynamic settings. When in the near future it will be technologically possible to invent weapons which can be legally used in urban and dynamic environments, it still may be questionable from an ethical and policy point of view to actually deploy them. Caution may be preferable regarding the designing of autonomous weapons which are independently capable of outhinking, outperforming and killing human beings. 

The second speaker,  Christine Boshuijzen-van Burken  , a  postdoctoral researcher and technology philosopher at Linneaus University Sweden and the Netherlands Defence Academy focused on the ethics of the technology of drones and how underlying information structures affect decision-making on the modern battlefield. In general modern military operations are being carried out by specialised military units from different countries. With the help of modern communication technology all available information and intelligence is being shared by collaborating allies that are part of an operation.  The problem with network shared operations is that shared information could be misinterpreted by the parties involved and this in turn could lead to wrong decision-making. Christine Boshuijzen discussed the problem of misinterpretation of technological information during military operations by looking deeper into the German-American bombing of two tanker trucks which were hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz, Afghanistan (2009). This bombing resulted in the death of more than one hundred civilians who were mistakenly identified as Taliban fighters.

According to dr. Boshuijzen-van Burken there are three pitfalls which could be the cause of incorrect decision-making:
(1) The predator view, which implies that the people involved in the hostilities look at reality through a straw and or (drone pilots) get caught up in the events on the screen.This way one risks loosing an overview which is neccesary for correct decision-making.
(2) Misinterpretation of real-time images and data which have been obtained by modern technology such as a drone. This could have serious and possibly fatal effects on decision-making.

(3)  Frustration of communication between collaborating allies. Complex communication structures between commanders, the supporting military ground staff and fighter pilots and different values, mandates and procedures might complicate decision-making which could lead to errors with a detrimental effect.

Speaker Commodore prof. dr. Frans Osinga, Professor in War Studies, Head of the Military Operational Art and Science Section of the Netherlands Defence Academy spoke about arguments for and against the deployment of drones. Only 5% of all drones is used to carry out airstrikes; drones are mainly used for other reasons such as intelligence and surveillance. Osinga first gave several arguments against a drone strike which fall under 2 categories: (1) It is illegal; (2) It is counterproductive; (3) Moral disengagement.

This was followed by an overview of arguments in favor of the use of drone airstrikes:

(1) What do drones do in reality: (1a) they don't kill (1b) are used for force protection.
(2) Some concerns lack evidence (2a) Civcas data vary widely, unreliable, hard to verify (2b) Public outcry is uncorrelated with drone strikes (2c) Unethical behavior is unrelated to technology (2d) No evidence of playstation mentality.
(3) Drone strikes are really accurate and may actually help avoid civil casualties (3a) Multiple source of intelligence (3b) Careful targeting process (3c) Drones allow prolonged observation (3d) Operators run no risk: increases accuracy and proper assessment (3e) More precise/lower risk for casualties than alternative engagement methods.
(4) Drone strikes may be legal & ethical, just like other types of attack. They are not necessarily illegal according to (international) law and or unethical. Not the weapon but the nature of the target is the determining factor.
(5) Drone strikes degrade effectiveness of insurgents.

Commodore Frans Osinga concluded that even though there are several valid arguments against the use of drones, one must not forget about the positive aspects of the deployment of drones during warfare. Drones have also helped to humanize warfare. From a humanitarian point of view drones have led to greater precision and precaution during an armed attack and thus have helped to mitigate detrimental effects of warfare such as civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. Commodore Ozinga ended with a quote of the ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, which  embodies this argument:

"[drones] allow belligerents to carry out their attacks more precisely against military objectives and thus reduce civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects, in other words, to exercise greater precaution in attack".

After the talks of the three speakers there were some interesting questions from the audience which were answered by the speakers. Overall it was an interesting and informative evening about about a highly debated subject.