Six years later, in May 2012, the United States Administration agreed to arm six Reapers and six Predators of the Italian air force with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. However, it was not until November 2015 that Italy was officially granted approval by the US government and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. This means that both Italy and the UK are now partners with the US in using American made UACV’s.
According to Chris Cole, founder of drone monitoring website Drone Wars UK, it remains unclear whether the Italian drone fleet is already armed. Another important fact is that since February 2016, US drones are allowed to take off from Italian air base Sigonella, located on Sicily, to mount operations against ISIS in Libya.
So far, there has been little opposition from civil society against the involvement of Italy in US drone operations. Furthermore, Italy has contributed to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system and is part of the European ‘drone users club’ to compete against the Israeli- and US- made UAVs.
With regard to the Sigonella air base, Italy developed a conditional policy in which they claim that their base will only assist American ‘defense missions and not offensive action’. The disclaimer should, however, be translated into clear policy defining what is meant by defensive and offensive missions and implementing international law, especially human rights law. Without such a policy Italy risks to be complicit in wrongful drone strikes since the US ‘defense missions’ have led to unlawful targeted killing on multiple occasions. Equally important is the formulation of a clear policy on the use of Italy’s own armed drones. Italy’s decision to arm its drones with American hellfire missiles can be perceived as further recognition of a strategic
partnership within the NATO. The strategic partnership has mutual benefits as Italy has become a strong supporter of the US-led campaigns, which in turn has allowed Italy to increase its operational flexibility and protect its forces. Italy’s policy on the issue of arming drones is therefore closely related to a broader geopolitical debate on the Italian involvement in global affairs. A clear and detailed policy on how Italy’s use of armed drones is in full compliance with international law is however lacking and must be articulated and published.
As mentioned previously, Sigonella air base is set to play an important role in the drone warfare network, comparable to that of the German Ramstein base. Italy must therefore take precaution to prevent complicity in unlawful drones strikes from their soil. According to Diego Mauri from the University of Palermo and the Catholic University of Milano, the US commander of the Sigonella base retains ‘full military command over US personnel, equipment and operations’, but its operations remain under the authority of the Italian state. The country, therefore, has a duty of due diligence to request information on how their assistance is used in practice. Besides preventing complicity in American drone strikes, Italy must also work to prevent unlawful killings by its own armed MQ-9 Reapers by articulating clear and detailed policy in full compliance with international law.
As mentioned before, Italy made an agreement with the US that it was to deploy its armed drones exclusively for self-defense purposes. However, according to the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and
Rights (CILD) there has been a ‘complete lack of transparency’ on the content of this agreement. An important question remains whether and to what extent Italy has given authorization to the US. Both the
agreement on the deployment of ISR drones from the Sigonella base and the agreement in February 2016 on the deployment of armed drones for defensive missions in Libya were hidden from the public. This lack of transparency may be an important reason why there has been little opposition to the involvement of Italy in US drone operations. Notwithstanding, published news reports on the Italian government ‘quietly allowing’ America to deploy its armed drones and the first Italian victim of the American drone attacks, namely Giovanni Lo Porto, seemed to go unnoticed. The CILD has therefore organized a conference to held on the 25th of September, in cooperation with the Rete Italiana per il Disarmo and the European Center
for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), with the aim to raise awareness and ignite a public debate on the human rights standards of counter-terrorism operations. The Italian government must take its responsibility to be more transparent and to allow for civil rights organizations, international institutions and the general (Italian) public to hold it accountable.
With regard to the Sigonella base, Italy has a duty of due diligence to request information on how their assistance is used in practice. The Italian counterpart of the US commander at Sigonella air base has the responsibility to inform his colleague when he considers that the US activities do not respect the law and to intervene when Sigonella is used to endanger the life of public health. Because the Italian government is accountable when Sigonella base is used to launch defensive or offensive missions, it is of utmost importance that the Italian government legally justifies US operations, even when they are ‘defensive’ in nature. To do so, the Italian government must require the American commander to inform Italian authorities of all ‘significant US activities with specific reference to the operational and training activity’. This would include the deployment of the armed drone fleet.
In line with our call to control proliferation, Italy has signed the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on October 28th, 2016.21 By signing this declaration Italy has agreed to the regulation on the production, export and use of armed and strike capable drones to that end that international law, including human rights law, is ‘upheld’. Upheld between brackets because the Declaration remains ambiguous, as it does not specify how international and human rights law must be interpreted and applied, nor is the Declaration legally or politically binding. The followup process that should have developed strong international standards remains opaque and non-inclusive to civil society. Hence, increased proliferation and the growing deployment of drones remain key challenges that need to be addressed. Existing definitions in arms export control regimes are blurring due to new developments surrounding armed drones and related technologies and the ease with which civilian drones can be transformed into military capable drones. This is of specific importance for Italy, since the country has decided to arm its drones and has and continues to contribute to the production and development of UACV’s. For example, in March 2015 Italy signed a declaration of intent along with Germany and France to develop a European made Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) drone. The declaration is good news for aerospace companies Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica (Italian) who have long lobbied for the political support of the project. The new European made drone is planned to be ready in 2025.