In the first half of the Trump administration, the United States demonstrated its continued reliance on lethal drones to respond to perceived terrorist threats, yet with no overarching strategy to guide such use. The Trump administration has placed a primacy on immediate military action, resulting in a U.S. drone policy that appears less restrained, less transparent, and less accountable.
As the number one user of lethal drone technology in the world, the United States has an opportunity to be a leader on developing appropriate policy frameworks to guide the transfer and use of armed drones and setting a responsible international precedent. Such an approach is particularly important as lethal drone technology continues to proliferate, and U.S. policy and practice impacts not only what happens within and to the United States, but how our allies, partners, and even our adversaries utilize drones for their own purposes.
Although the high profile drone-strike killing of Iranian general Soleimani is now front-page news, U.S. use of armed drones also remains controversial in large part because of ongoing secrecy surrounding their lethal use — especially outside of traditional battlefields — and the resulting lack of accountability that often goes hand in hand with limited transparency. These trends have only been amplified during the Trump administration, where U.S. drone policy has been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency, and Trump has reversed course on certain measures designed to make drone use more responsible and bring the drone program out of the shadows. Additionally, the tempo and geographic scope of lethal drone strikes has increased and the threshold for strike-decisions has reportedly been lowered, while the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes has reportedly broadened.
The Trump administration also seems recommitted to pursuing a flawed multilateral process for developing international standards to guide drone transfers and use, which, in its current form, could weaken existing standards and result in other countries adopting policies and practices similar to those of the United States. In October 2016, the United States initiated a multilateral effort to examine the implications of drone proliferation and use by drafting and circulating a “joint declaration for the export and subsequent use of armed or strike-enabled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).” Fifty-three UN member states signed on to the declaration and agreed to begin a process to develop global standards on export and subsequent use of armed drones. Now, a core-group of states, including the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Japan, and observer states Turkey, Israel and France, are working to develop this initiative into so-called International Standards on the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed Drones, as communicated by the U.S. State Department in October 2017. While the results of this process and the standards themselves are unclear, it is moving forward.
The current U.S.-led process to develop global drone standards raises a number of concerns. For one, it risks giving the veneer of promoting responsible decision-making while proving meaningless in establishing appropriate controls, as higher standards already exist in several legal frameworks. The process also continues to be directed by a small group of states and remains closed to outside input from subject matter experts, relevant practitioners, and communities affected by drone transfers and use. Therefore, it is important that civil society representatives continue to remain engaged with states and inform them of policies and practices that support the development of responsible national policies on drones, as well as international standards to guide drone transfer and use.
In 2020, it is likely that we will continue to see increased proliferation and use of drones, but also a proliferation of new multilateral regimes and agreements. Differing standards or rules guiding drone transfers and use – that is, those enumerated in the international standards, the global counterterrorism forum, in the ATT, and in other export control regimes – could lead to confusion for states, both exporters and importers, over which rules and standards to follow or to apply. This risk could compound those already modeled by the U.S. drone program, such as the risks to civilians and challenges to the rule of law, both domestically and internationally.
As drones continue to proliferate and more countries look to acquire and use lethal drone capabilities, questions of efficacy, legality, transparency, and accountability will continue to raise concerns about the precedent being set by the current U.S. drone program. The United States has an opportunity to be a leader on this issue and ensure that U.S. policy on drones is responsible and transparent and sets an appropriate benchmark for drone transfers and use around the world. As we move into the next election cycle, it will be important for civil society to remain engaged and pursue forward progress on the issue of drones.