The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) has published a new reflection paper calling upon states to take action on armed drones. The publication, titled “Technology at the Service of Peace“, examines the development, use, and export of armed drones as well as the development of fully autonomous weapons, also known as killerrobots. EFAD members were also consulted for the this report. Based on this reflection, COMECE provides several recommendations to the EU and its Member States on how to address the challenges posed by such ‘uncrewed’ armed systems.
The reflection comes at a critical time as the EU is set to invest millions into ‘disruptive’ technologies, such as drones through the European Defence Fund (EDF). Despite frequent calls by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union has not discussed the ethical and legal implications of the use of armed drones, nor taken action to address existing concerns by civil society organizations and victims of armed drone strikes. In the vote leading up to the establishment of the EDF, the European Parliament managed to make sure it would not fund the development of lethal autonomous weapons, but gave up parliamentary oversight of the fund. This leaves questions regarding the ethical implications of other technologies the EDF might support. The Eurodrone project, which is working towards developing a drone capable of carrying arms, will be one of the largest beneficiaries of the EDF when it launches in 2021. The development of the drone will inevitably lead to its use, as it is meant to foster ‘strategic autonomy’ and replace the imports of US and Israeli-build drones, but the use of armed drones is marred with several controversial issues. Worryingly, there is a lack of discussion among Member States and in the Council on how these issues will be dealt with.
COMECE’s reflection on these issues, and their call for action, therefore comes at a crucial time. As the number of states using armed drones grows, and transparency measures in the US are rolled back, COMECE’s call to “fully respect the principles of the International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law” and for states to be “oriented towards a global harmonization of legal, security and ethical standards”, is more important than ever. In this, the Catholic Church at the EU joins a long list of NGOs, EFAD members, high-level diplomats, and international organizations that recognize the need to address the dangerous issues of the use of armed drones.