Armed drones and drone technology continue to proliferate around the world. The ramifications of their use are seen in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and, more recently, in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a side event to the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, hosted on October 22th, 2020 by the Stimson Center and PAX, experts discussed the role multilateral fora can play in developing international standards for the transfer and use of armed drones.
The participants included UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Agnes Callamard; Deputy Permanent Representative of the Mission of Costa Rica to the UN, Maritza Chan; Senior Policy Advisor of the Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction of the US Department of State, William Malzahn; and Project Leader Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX, Wim Zwijnenburg. The event was moderated by Rachel Stohl, Vice President of the Stimson Center.
As Rachel Stohl explained in her introduction, over the years, civil society groups, legal experts, the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies, and others have called for greater international coordination on the development of international standards and norms for armed drones. Concerns have been raised in particular over the lack of clarity surrounding states’ legal and regulatory frameworks that justify drone use as well as the ongoing secrecy on the extent and impact of targeted drone strikes. She highlighted how the unique capabilities and consequences presented by armed drones have created a need for forward-looking norms relating to the use of lethal force outside traditional war settings to avoid civilian harm and impunity.
Agnes Callamard reiterated some key points made in her 2020 report. She first expressed her concern about the uncontrolled proliferation of drones where both state and non-state actors are deploying more advanced drone technologies at a rapid pace, eager to join the ‘’drone power club’’. She mentioned the difficulties to assess the impact of drone strikes, noting that these often generate far more civilian casualties than reported. Other concerns noted by Ms. Callamard were the lack of effective oversight mechanisms, both domestically and internationally, as well as the ongoing lack of transparency surrounding drones strikes and exports. In her recommendations, she urged states to initiate a process of multi-stakeholder discussions to establish a drone technology control regime, which should include stricter control on military and dual-use technology, criteria to prevent ‘’irresponsible transfers’’, and adherence to civilian protection, and international humanitarian and human rights law.
In his presentation, William Malzahn outlined the existing international mechanisms governing the use and export of drones. He also described the current US led process to establish a detailed set of international standards for the export and use of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The standards have not yet been finalized but are intended to reinforce existing international efforts. Mr. Malzahn also added that they should be more than merely a political declaration and intend drones to be deployed in a manner consistent with international humanitarian and human rights law.
Maritza Chan stated that efforts to establish new international standards should strengthen, not undermine existing international laws and regulatory regimes. She stressed the need for inclusivity in broader discussions on the implications of remote warfare. As she explained, these discussions should also involve states not manufacturing or importing drones themselves. She added that Costa Rica stands ready to join such debate.
Wim Zwijnenburg shared the main findings of PAX’s recently launched report ‘’Violent Skies’’, which aims to shed light on how drone technology is reshaping warfare. He described the different types of drones currently seen on the battlefields of Ukraine and Yemen, ranging from small hand-held ones to larger drones that can carry multiple payloads. He highlighted how commercial drones can easily be weaponized and how state and non-state actors are capable of adapting dual-use technology into lethal drones, presenting a challenge for export control mechanisms. He also warned that the unique capabilities of drones have lowered the threshold to use force, which can lead to an escalation of violence. He urged states to define their position on the use of lethal force in and outside armed conflict situations, and to actively engage in a multilateral dialogue to address these concerns.
While William Malzahn considered the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to be the most appropriate forum to develop drone standards, Agnes Callamard said she did not believe there to be an appropriate forum at this moment. Instead, she stressed that the first priority now is to determine the content of these standards. Finally, in response to the statement made by William Malzahn that the use of drones by the US government is consistent with international humanitarian and human rights standards, Agnes Callamard strongly expressed she did not believe this to be the case. However, she also mentioned the importance of critically assessing the practice of other states, in particular major drone exporter China.
Overall, the discussion highlighted the clear need and interest to develop international standards regulating the use and transfer of drones. However, as Rachel Stohl summarized in her final remarks, what remains unresolved is where these standards will be developed and what their content should be. Several factors will play an important role in the eventual success and impact of these efforts, including who is responsible for their implementation and enforcement, the types of technology captured within the scope of these standards, states’ interpretation of the legal frameworks around the use of lethal force, the effectiveness of reporting and consulting mechanisms, the evaluation of exports and the engagement with non-participating states.