The German Government’s coalition treaty from 2018 provides that an extensive public debate about the ethical and legal implications of armed drones for the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) is to be held before a decision can be made in the Parliament about the armament of Heron TP drones leased from Israel.
On 11 May 2020 the German Federal Ministry of Defense started the debate by hosting a day of panel discussions exploring the ethical, political and legal dimensions of armed drones as potential new equipment for the German Armed Forces. In the following weeks the Ministry of Defense followed up with a livechat event, a presentation to members of the parliament and two webinars at the University of the Bundeswehr as well as at the University of Regensburg. It seems unlikely that these events were able to reach a broad audience in the German public because they took place during working hours and were mainly promoted on the ministry’s social media (#Drohnendebatte2020) which is not frequented by a majority of the German public.
The Ministry of Defense framed the debate on mostly technical issues around drones, as well as the protection of soldiers without further specifying which case scenarios would be considered as self-defense acts. Voices contextualizing the use of armed drones were hardly heard in the debate as organized by the Ministry of Defense.
As one of the very few other events, the Max-Planck-Institute for Public International Law hosted an expert round on the implications of armed drones on public international law. Here, experts controversially addressed the scope of the debate as such. Decision-makers should include in their decision a prognostic analysis about how the acquisition of armed drones would impact certain developments, e.g. what would it mean for a further erosion of the prohibition of the use of force. The lack of transparency and accountability as well as of judicial oversight furthermore likely supports an escalation of violence. Similar, the impact of armed drones on other contemporary legal questions of ius in bello requires a deepened analysis. The line between acts in self-defense and offensive acts is blurry and often it is even difficult to establish whether an armed conflict exists in a particular situation and for which time period.
In addition to this event, ECCHR published a blog post contributing to the debate. From the broader civil society movement in Germany, a campaign started against the acquisition of armed drones by the German armed forces.
Even though the debate just restarted and attendance by critical voices is low, the Ministry of Defense is expected to present the Parliament with a concluding report on the debate to initiate a parliamentary discussion and vote on the topic very soon.
In light of the current emergency related to Covid-19, the debate on drones is going by nearly unnoticed and the organization of broader participative public discussions as well as opposition through protests is limited.
Written by Andreas Schueller