It is time for an international conversation – and, ultimately, a treaty – on the use of drones. It is naïve to carry on as if the U.S. will forever be the primary user of unmanned aircraft. Other countries continue to develop their own technologies and 87 nations already possess some form of them. National boundaries are becoming largely irrelevant as drones are now humming through the collective global airspace. Unshackled by the risk to their own lives or the burden of declaring war, these armies could soon target and kill from continents far and away. So what happens when everyone has drones?
Without an international drone treaty, or at minimum an international conversation on the topic, the sky’s the limit on disorderly drone conduct. Just imagine if the world were to follow the example set by the U.S. thus far. Consider America’s precedent. U.S. drone strikes recently hit a wedding convoy in Yemen, killing 12 civilian men and turning a day of celebration into tragedy. As reports of the day emerge, more gruesome details come to light, indicating that no one is safe in the age of drones, not even on their wedding day.
This is common practice for the U.S. Our government commonly conducts “signature strikes” against people who are not actually suspected of wrongdoing, but who fit a certain characteristic. Sometimes these characteristics are broad enough that one need only be male and of fighting age to be targeted for death by drones. The blowback is devastating. One former Department of State official estimated that 40 to 60 new enemies are created with each drone strike. Imagine when those who have survived American drone strikes acquire the ability to conduct their own signature strikes against Americans.
The U.S. is also setting the precedent that citizens can be targeted by their own governments, no matter where they are in the world. At least four U.S. citizens have already died by U.S. drone strike based not on due process but on allegations of wrongdoing. Imagine other countries inflicting the same fate upon their own citizens when they acquire lethal drones.
modus operandi on drones becomes international common practice, the international
community needs to agree to a treaty that monitors and provides meaningful accountability
and oversight over this behavior. We also need an international body that
collects international funds from drone-operating countries and provides compensation
to civilians who have been killed by drone strikes. Even before the news of the
wedding party deaths, there were plenty of examples of innocent civilians dying
from American drone strikes. Reports
from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for example, detail the
death of a grandmother working in her garden, the severe wounding of a
three-year-old, and the deaths of many who rushed to help the wounded, only to
be struck themselves by a drone moments later. As condolence payments are
common in the war zone, these families must also be compensated.
Despite Pentagon officials’ assurances that drone strikes are surgical and precise, they are not. They are subject to human error and indiscretion like any other weapon of war. If we’re not careful, we’re quickly creating a world in which every person may fear not only of being a target, but being near a target – all the more justification for an international treaty sooner than later.
As more horrific reports emerge of drones gone awry, it is time for the United
States to join with the international community and agree upon a code of
conduct that will protect national sovereignty, human dignity and the rule of
law. A drones treaty must be enacted before the international norms regarding
unmanned systems inevitably follow the chaotic example set by American drones
A drone treaty focus on efforts not unlike the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, interpreted as a three-pillar system, with an implicit balance among nonproliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use the technology.
In forging such a treaty at the United Nations, the international community would recognize the need for nonproliferation, disarmament and the use of drones for peaceful purposes. We understand the possible benign benefits of drone use in humanitarian relief efforts, law enforcement, disaster mitigation and management, monitoring human rights violations, geological and scientific purposes and more. We also recognize that the technology isn’t going away; it’s here to stay. All the more reason, then, for a treaty.
It is time to meet at the international negotiating table and forge a treaty. As the world’s primary purveyor of drones, the U.S. must be the first to step up to that table. It is not too late to lead by example instead of lawlessly and covertly filling the global skies with killer robots.