Major technological advances over the last decades have resulted in the rapidly growing deployment of uncrewed aerial vehicles, also known as ”drones” for military purposes and in law enforcement scenarios. While these uncrewed systems may at a first glance bring important advantages, there is a need to critically examine the implications of their use for the civilian population as well as for long-term peace and stability. On June 7th, 2021, in a webinar hosted by the Asociación Española de Investigación para la Paz (AIPAZ), Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau and the European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD), academics, civil society representatives and members of parliament engaged in a lively discussion on the risks and challenges that could be faced by Spain when deploying drones and other novel military technologies. The event was held in Spanish.
The participants included Zaida Cantera de Castro, spokesperson Defence Committee of the Grupo Socialista; Fernando Adolfo Gutiérrez Díaz de Otazu, spokesperson Defence Committee of the Grupo Popular; Tica Font Gregori, researcher at AIPAZ and the Women’s League of International Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Spain; Joaquín Rodríguez Álvarez, Professor at the School of Prevention and Integral Safety and Security of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and coordinator in Spain of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots; and Pere Brunet i Crosa, researcher at Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau. The event was moderated by Ana Barrero Tiscar, President of AIPAZ.
To start off the conversation, some key characteristics of drones were addressed. Some of the speakers, including Zaida Cantera and Pere Brunet, highlighted the blurred distinction between commercial and military drones as in theory any type of drone could be converted into a lethal weapon. The difference between the two therefore rather lies in who deploys them, the way they are deployed, and for what purpose.
Fernando Gutiérrez listed a series of drones currently in use in Spain, mainly for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, among others for the protection of military convoys or in collaboration with the Moroccan police in the context of migration control. With respect to the recently acquired MQ-9 Reaper drones, he explained that while these are capable of carrying arms, Spain thus far has not lethally deployed drones. He spoke out strongly against the targeted killing campaigns as orchestrated amongst others by the United States, characterizing these as illegal under international law. However, he also noted the difficulties at the international level in adopting coercive measures or issuing sanctions against powerful states engaged in such practices.
Tica Font and Zaida Cantera elaborated on some of the ethical implications attached to such lethal drone attacks, explaining how the often-mentioned advantage of the lowered risk to one’s own soldiers when deploying drones implicitly attributes more value to those lives than to the lives of civilians living in conflict-affected areas, who in the majority of cases have no access to justice. They also mentioned the physical and psychological distance between the drone operator and the battlefield, the effects of which are reflected more broadly in society and among political decision-makers. As Zaida Cantera explained, with fewer body bags returning from war zones, there is little pressure from society to find alternative diplomatic solutions to military interventions.
Both Zaida Cantera and Fernando Gutiérrez highlighted the need for strict legal parameters and ethical codes to govern the use of drones, including the possibility for accountability for any unlawful drone attacks. They noted, however, the difficulties arising from the different ethical considerations between different countries to agree on such standards on an international level.
On the growing proliferation of drones to both states and non-state armed groups, Fernando Gutiérrez mentioned the biannual monitoring of the Defence Committee aimed at adjusting Spanish arms exports to the parameters set by the European Union. Joaquín Rodríguez, however, pointed out that these EU regulations are not always observed in practice and called for clearer criteria to restrict the dispersion of arms and military technologies to third parties. Zaida Cantera added that such criteria should go accompanied with effective measures to avoid situations where export regulations can be violated without any repercussions.
Finally, some of the speakers, including Pere Brunet, Tica Font and Joaquín Rodríguez, expressed their concerns about the development of fully autonomous weapons, urging that Spain support a full ban on these weapon systems.
Missed the webinar? Watch a recording of the session here (in Spanish):