Discussing Drones at the UN Headquarters

October 27th, 2015

Michael Spies, Alexandra Hiniker, Maritza Chan, Amrit Singh, Hina Shamsi and Wim Zwijnenburg.


The First Committee of the UN General Assembly saw its very first side event on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or drones, on Friday 23 October 2015. The Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations and PAX hosted a debate on “Discussing Drones: Engaging the international community on unmanned systems.” The session was moderated by Alexandra Hiniker, PAX’s Representative to the United Nations in New York. The event combined legal, ethical and political perspectives on the use and proliferation of armed drones. Maritza Chan, Minister Counselor of the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica introduced the topic, and explained that the deployment of armed drones has increased, and that large numbers of drone assassinations have been carried out in secrecy, killing many civilians. It is essential to not only clarify the legal policies, but also to not lose sight of the human perspective. Drone strikes are framed as low-cost and risk-free, but they only shift the risk to innocent civilians.

The first speaker, Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative and author of Death by Drone, stressed that drones are not the problem per se, but their use in drone strikes. The extraterritorial employment of armed drones without accountability is extremely troublesome. There is no transparency on decision-making, and it is not clear what the legal framework is to support the strikes. For instance, States have claimed that targeted strikes are a response to a continued and imminent threat to their populations, when capture is not possible. However, they have not explained the nature of the threat, nor how they are applying international rules governing the use of force. There needs to be more transparency on both the policy and the legal justifications. She also discussed a report on drone strikes in Pakistan, which showcased the human element, and raised serious questions on why the victims were targeted.

Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern that US drone strikes have set a precedent that other countries are now set to follow, which is dangerous for international security. Current strikes challenge international law and the right to life. US law requires that its officials must not engage in propaganda expressing that strikes are lawful, wise and effective, while withholding the information that lets the public decide that for themselves. There is also a serious concern that governments see the silence of the international community as consent to problematic policies.

Wim Zwijnenburg of PAX concentrated on the proliferation of drones, as he recently published inUnmanned and uncontrolled. Drones have now proliferated to non-state actors. Hamas, Islamic State, and Hezbollah have used drones, although it is unclear whether their drones are armed. Export control is difficult, because of the dual-use nature and the variation in payload. There are several export regimes controlling drones, like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), theUnited Nations Register of Conventional Arms, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. However, they all are imperfect instruments. Some only include specific type of drones, others are not future-proof, and all struggle with the fact that dual-use items are different to control.

The final speaker was Michael Spies, Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). UNODA has just published a Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, prepared on the recommendation of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters. Included in the report were several ways the international community could increase transparency, oversight and accountability in the use of armed UAVs outside active hostilities. Proposed measures in this regard include, publishing the results of investigations of alleged unlawful deaths as well as disclosure of information on each strike, including the applicable legal framework, the targeting criteria and measures to protect civilians. Making full use of existing international instruments, States can also improve transparency and accountability in the development, stockpiling, transfer and end-use monitoring of armed drones.

The presentations and the debate that followed afterwards enlightened the audience on issues of armed drones. There was an extensive debate on the nature of a traditional battleground, and whether states like the UK and France were allowed to conduct strikes in Syria under international law. It is safe to say that the first side-event of the First Committee on armed drones was a success, ready for repeat next year.


 Text and photos by Maaike Verbruggen


Pictures from the event: