The Holy See

Recently, the first collection of the Vatican’s diplomatic actions and statements at the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva from 2003 and 2015 were published within the volume ‘The Vatican in the Family of Nations’. The volume includes statements on the use of armed drones, condemning the high number of civilian casualties and the lack of transparency in reporting these casualties.

During the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, on the 14th of November 2013, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative at the United Nations, addressed the worrisome proliferation of drone technology and the growing use of armed drones both in various conflict areas and outside conventional conflicts. According to Tomasi, the excessive spread of UAVs is of concern as it could spoil the ‘international relations and stability’. Therefore, the Holy See called upon states not to ignore the costs to civilian life and property, nor the psychological and economic costs of living in constant fear of future mistaken strikes and wrongful targeted killings: ‘If the economics of drones may make sense to the budgets, it is ethically imperative that those cost savings not be the only costs considered.’ Although it is difficult to ‘assess the precise impact on civilians of the use of weaponised drones, due (…) to the lack of transparency in reporting’, Archbishop Tomasi argues that it is ‘indisputable that large populations live in constant fear of their strikes’. Furthermore, the Holy See proclaimed that armed drones, like any other weapon, should always be subject to the rules and moral principles of international law and international humanitarian law.

A year later, during the CCW annual meeting on the 13th of November 2014, Tomasi expressed his concerns about the rapid proliferation and military deployment of armed drones again. He pointed out that the mandate adopted concerning the regulation of autonomous weapons does not dispense the CCW from discussing the issues surrounding the judicial, moral and military-strategic obligations to the use of armed drones. He emphasized the serious ethical implications of using drone technologies in conflict, but also the challenges it poses with regard to international humanitarian law and human rights. The choice to not address the issue presently, Tomasi warned, may have ‘disastrous consequences’. If the CCW wants to contribute to ‘stability, cooperation and peace’ in a world increasingly torn apart by war and conflict, the topic of armed drones should be included.

Although Archbishop Tomasi only expressed himself publicly on the subject of armed drones in 2013 and 2014, when he recommended resolutions to be adopted by the General Assembly, the opinions expressed by local catholic clergy also reflect the political will to contribute to an assessment of the drone issue. For example, the German Bishop Stephan Ackermann organized, together with the Military Ordinariate, a conference on remote-controlled aerial vehicles; the Institut für Theologie und Frieden is working closely with the German Military Ordinariate on several analyses of armed drones, and, according to scholar Lóránd Ujházi, American Catholic Church leaders too are very involved due to the remote warfare policies of the United States. For instance, Bishop Richard Pates wrote a letter on the 17th of May 2013, addressed to Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor from the United States, stating that drone strikes violate moral norms and the law of war: ‘The Administration seems to have focused narrowly on the just cause of protecting citizens, but other elements of the tradition pose significant questions, including discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality, and probability of success’.

However, Ujházi mentioned that, despite these initiatives, the Catholic Church had not yet established an official position on the development and prolific use of military drone technologies.

In 2016, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Archbishop Auza, spoke to the UN about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. During his talk, the Archbishop stated that: “Statistics have clearly shown that it is the civilian population that is disproportionately victimized by ever more technologically sophisticated weapons. Remote-controlled assassinations without due process of law and the “collateral damage” to civilians by Lethal Autonomous Weapons System (LAWS) brings to the fore ethical and legal questions that merit careful review and perhaps even a challenge on the basis of international humanitarian law.” The delegation of the Holy See also called upon weapons-producing states to strictly limit the supply of arms to client states and to monitor their use.

H.E. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič as Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN.

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