The Expanding Use of Armed UAVs and the Need for International Standards

November 30th, 2018


     On 24 October 2018, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a side event of the United Nations First Committee entitled “The Expanding Use of Armed UAVs and the Need for International Standards,” co-hosted by the Permanent Missions of Germany and the Netherlands with PAX and the Stimson Center.

     Dr. Renata Dwan, the Director of UNIDIR, opened the event by noting several areas of discussion related to the rapid spread of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): the lack of transparency; the need for a common understanding of use and proliferation; and compliance with international law. She then moderated a discussion between five panelists.

     H.E. Mr. Peter Andreas Beerwerth, Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Conference on Disarmament, discussed Germany’s perspective on some of the critical issues in the discussion, including the growing trend of UAV proliferation among States and non-State actors as well as the need for a sufficient legal framework to clarify what is and is not permitted regarding UAVs.

     Mr. George Woodhams, Security and Society Researcher at UNIDIR, discussed the key takeaways of his latest publication, “Weapons of Choice? The Expanding Development, Transfer and Use of Armed UAVs”. “We are in a very different world from 10 years ago,” he said, explaining that an increase in domestic production of UAVs, more permissive export policies and the arming of unarmed systems are all likely to contribute to the proliferation of armed UAVs. These trends may have concerning implications for ensuring adherence to the rule of law and for maintaining international stability.

     Ms. Rachel Stohl, Managing Director of the Stimson Center, stressed the importance of considering the potential roles of existing arms control mechanisms, such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), in regulating the transfers and use of UAVs. “The ATT does not explicitly reference drones, [but] I argue that the ATT applies to drones”, she said. She considered that different standards on guiding drone transfers and use, including those in the US-led joint declaration, the ATT and in other export controls regimes, can lead to confusion over which standards should be applied. To help eliminate confusion about different applicable standards or rules, Ms. Stohl recommended developing an inventory of relevant best practices and lessons learned with regard to the ATT.

     Mr. Wim Zwijnenburg, Humanitarian Disarmament Project Lead at PAX, explored the growing market for drones and highlighted the need for international standards in this regard. He identified several cases of people negatively affected by armed UAVs and, in this context, stressed the role of international law in reducing and redressing civilian harm. He discussed a range of related legal and security concerns highlighted in two reports recently published by PAX: “Unmanned Ambitions” and “Human Rights and Human Realities”.

     H.E. Mr. Robbert Gabriëlse, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and Disarmament Ambassador at large, said future international standards for UAVs should address two key areas: principles of proper use and notification requirements. In closing remarks, he highlighted the importance of international discussions on this subject being frank and open and including States, experts and civil society.

     Ms. Dwan then concluded the event, drawing on questions from the audience and comments by the speakers to illuminate some of the key issues that had emerged in the discussion. Concerns included the tendency of existing regulations to address imports and exports rather than use; how new norms should be prioritized relative to existing frameworks; whether responses should start at the national level or at the international level; and if related matters should be discussed across multiple forums.

This panel served as a launch event for several new publications:

• The first paper in a UNIDIR Briefing Series on the Future of Armed UAVs: “Weapons of Choice? The Expanding Development, Transfer and Use of Armed UAVs”;

• The PAX reports “Unmanned Ambitions”, on drone proliferation, and “Human Rights and Human Realities”, on victim’s perspectives of drone strikes; and

• The Stimson Center report “The Arms Trade Treaty and Drones”.

About PAX

PAX works under the assignment of Pax Christi (Netherlands) and IKV (Interchurch Peace Council) on peace programmes. PAX operates independently of political interests and with support from a wide group of involved citizens, social organizations and churches.

About the Stimson Center

The Stimson Center is a nonpartisan policy research centre working to protect people, preserve the planet and promote security and prosperity.


Text by Tomoko Hiramoto