Last week, on December 12th, the European Parliament (EP) adopted two separate resolutions highlighting concerns over the use of armed drones, and urged Member States and EU institutions to act on these concerns. This included references to the EU’s own drone development programs. The first resolution, 2018/2098(INI), contains the EP’s view on the Human Rights and Democracy in the World report of 2017, and addresses several issues surrounding the use of armed drones. This annual returning resolution refers to the 2014 call for a legally binding framework to prevent unlawful killings through the use of drones, as well as to assess the impact of the EU’s development of armed drones on human rights:
“The European Parliament…
Recalls its resolution of 27 February 2014 on the use of armed drones; expresses its grave concern over the use of armed drones outside the international legal framework; calls once again for the EU to urgently develop a legally binding framework for the use of armed drones in order to ensure that Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states; calls on the Commission to keep Parliament properly informed about the use of EU funds for all research and development projects associated with the construction of drones; calls for human rights impact assessments in respect of further drone development projects.”
Moratorium on the development of armed drones and killer robots
On the same day, the EP also passed resolution (2018/0254(COD) containing amendments to the Commission’s proposal for the European Defence Fund, a € 13 billion euro initiative of which a part will be spent on the development of unmanned systems and related technologies. The EP specifically addressed this, calling for human rights impact assessments of such projects; to prohibit any funding for lethal autonomous weapons; and to prevent the development of armed drones before the European Council has adopted a decision on how such drones will be used.
“Amendments adopted by the European Parliament on 12 December 2018 on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the European Defence Fund
(46a) Undertakings, when proposing new defence products or technologies or proposing to re-purpose existing ones, are bound by the applicable legislation. … The Commission should ensure that proposals are systematically screened to identify those actions raising serious ethics issues and submit them to an ethics assessment. Actions which are not ethically acceptable should not receive Union funding.
(46b) The Council should endeavour to establish a decision on the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles before [31 December 2020]. No funding should be made available for developing armed unmanned aerial vehicles before that decision has entered into force.”
(6) Actions for the development of products and technologies the use, development or production of which is prohibited by applicable international law shall not be eligible for funding . In particular, the Programme shall not fund … lethal autonomous weapons, including unmanned aerial vehicles, without meaningful human control over the critical functions of selecting and attacking individual targets.”
Though unhelpful to sub-categorize armed drones as part of lethal autonomous weapons, the text is helpful to address the future development of an EU framework on the use of armed drones. These resolutions follow several other calls by the EP to take action on drones:
In 2014, the EP adopted resolution 2014/2567(RSP) expressing “grave concern over the use of armed drones outside the international legal framework” and urging a host of measures, including the development of an EU Common Position on armed drones. Subsequently, at the request of the EP’s Human Rights Subcommittee, a briefing containing specific recommendations to the Council for such a Common Position was published in 2017.
On the fifth of July, 2018, the EP recommended that the European Council should take action on drones during that years’ United Nations General Assembly. The suggested course of action in resolution 2018/2040(INI) was to establish a legal framework on drones, to promote the start of negotiations on the prohibition of autonomous armed drones, and to promote a UN-based legal framework stipulating that the use of armed drones takes place in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.
On the 18th of September, 2018, the EP adopted resolution 2017/2271(INI) on EU-US relations. The resolution expressed grave concerns over the US’ drone program, and called on both parties to “ensure that the use of armed drones complies with their obligations under international law, including international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and that robust binding standards to govern the provision of all forms of assistance for lethal drone operations are established.”
In October 2018, the EP singled out the use of extra-judicial killings in Yemen specifically, urging the Council and EU Member States to oppose their use. Resolution 2018/2853(RSP) also urged EU Member States that they themselves do not facilitate, perpetrate, or take part in unlawful killings through the use of drones.
The resolution currently on the table, proposing amendments to the way in which drones are covered by the European Defence Fund, is part of the ordinary legislative procedure, meaning the European Council has to come to an agreement with the European Parliament before moving forward. This means that, following several resolutions expressing views and calls, members of the European Parliament now have the opportunity to put words into action during the negotiations on how the €13 billion will be spent.
In line with our call to action, the European Parliament urges the Council to adopt a clear position on the use of armed drones prior to their development. As the number of countries developing, acquiring and using armed drones continues to grow, such a position is needed to create more clarity on the legal framework for the use of armed drones.