Drone Wars UK is an NGO based in the United Kingdom. It was founded in 2010 to undertake research and advocacy around the issue of armed drones. Their work is mainly focused on the scrutiny of British drone use. In a new report published last month by Drone Wars UK, it was revealed that the UK government is actively funding research into technology supporting the development of armed autonomous drones.
In a conversation with director Chris Cole, we asked about Drone Wars UK experience with working on the issue.
How did your organization get involved with the issue of armed drones?
Drone Wars was set up in 2010 specifically to undertake research and campaigning around the use of armed drones. It grew out of earlier work undertaken by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 2008/9, soon after the UK acquired armed drones. We believe that the increasing use of remotely-controlled, armed unmanned systems is encouraging and enabling a lowering of the threshold for the use of lethal force as well as eroding human rights norms.
While some argue that the technology itself is neutral, we believe that drones are a danger to global peace and security. We have seen over the past decade that once these systems are in the armory, there is great temptation to use them, even beyond the constraints of international law. As more countries develop or acquire this technology, the danger to global peace and security grows.
What would count as a success in your work on drones for your organization? What is the impact you hope to achieve in the coming five years?
Success would be public and political recognition that remote and autonomous lethal systems are increasing the threat to international peace and security, and that the international community comes together to prohibit them. We recognize that this is some way off as the use of unmanned systems in particular is becoming normalized. Therefore we work in the interim, with colleagues in EFAD and around the globe, to put in place strict controls on their use.
Over the next five years we want to ensure that there is proper public and parliamentary oversight and control over the deployment of British armed drones. There is a clear tendency for the government to be less transparent about the use of these systems than it is about conventional platforms and we see signs the UK government want to treat drones in the same way as Special Forces. In addition, as the UK are purchasing new armed drones which will be able to be used in UK airspace and France too are flying its Reaper drones in its domestic airspace, we must ensure that there is proper public oversight and control of the use of military drones for security purposes within Europe.
If you had one chance to educate/influence your Minister of Defense and/or Minister of Foreign Affairs on the deployment of armed drones, what would you do?
I would urge them to set an important example and be transparent about the number of UK armed drones deployed and their location. As the number of countries using armed drones increases, and with multiple states now using armed drones in particular conflicts, it is really important for accountability purposes that states are transparent about where their armed drones are operating. The UK currently refuses to give these details. Being clear about the numbers deployed and their geographical location – if not by country then by region – would set an important precedent internationally and would have little to no security implications.
How do you experience working on this issue in the UK? / What is your take on the transparency situation of the UK government, regarding the use of armed drones and/or complicity?
There is important co-operation between organizations working on these issues within the UK. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Armed Drones in particular is helpful in bringing civil society group together within parliament and enabling their voices to be heard by MPs and Peers.
With regard to transparency, Drone Wars, Airwars and others have worked very hard to push back the secrecy surrounding the use of British armed drones. In the early days the government was refusing FoI requests for the type of information which is now regularly released. At the same time, as I say, there are some basic details which continue to be kept secret. In particular, the government is very reluctant to share information about the UK’s targeted killing of Reyaad Khan and operations conducted in co-operation with the United States.