On the 23rd of January, the European Parliament’s Security and Defence Committee (SEDE) debated a draft opinion on the European Commission’s initiative for “establishing the European Defence Industrial Development Programme aiming at supporting the competitiveness and innovative capacity of the EU defence industry.” This initiative seeks to promote the development of defence products, technologies, and research, by fostering cooperation and collaboration between EU Member States and enterprises. The European Parliament and the European Council both have to adopt a legislative proposal on the Commission’s initiative in order for it to pass.
In an effort to move the debate on armed drones forward, the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) attempted to link the production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to their military use and the human right implications thereof. AFET inserted an amendment to the draft opinion, calling for the exclusion of armed drones in the initiative until there is a Council Decision on this technology that upholds international law and addresses the issues surrounding the use of armed drones.
Amendment 234: “Actions which contribute directly or indirectly to the production of armed unmanned aerial vehicles or their parts, including components, software, artificial intelligence features, and any relevant dual-use technologies shall be excluded so long as no Council Decision on the use of such new military technology exists which upholds international human rights law and international humanitarian law and which addresses issues such as a legal framework, proportionality, protection of civilians and transparency.”
The amendment, put forward by the Greens/EFA group, should be applauded for their attempt to break open the discussion. As technological developments continue, and with the defense industry as an important player on the future military drone market, a clear signal on responsible use and export of armed drones is needed. If the amendment would have been accepted, the opinion would have been submitted to the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). ITRE will vote on the draft opinion in February, and when accepted, the EP negotiators would then need to take in this opinion on drones in their negotiations with the EU Council and the EU Commission (the so-called trilogues). This could have resulted in a request for the EU to develop a legal on the use of armed drones.
Unfortunately, the amendment was rejected with 41 to 12 votes. This attempt to engage the EU on armed drones follows several past attempts of the EP to demand action. In February 2014, the EP passed a resolution urging the EU to develop policy responses that uphold human rights and international humanitarian law, and calling on the Council to adopt a EU Common Position on the use of armed drones. Subsequently, at the request of the Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), Jessica Dorsey, currently Senior Legal and Policy Officer at EFAD Member Rights Watch (UK), in her capacity as Associate Fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague published a briefing containing specific recommendations for a future Council decision on the implications of the expanding use and proliferation of armed drones, and the concerns over extrajudicial targeted killings. Various other EFAD members contributed to this report as well.
However, there seems to have been little appetite among EU institutions to formulate a position on the need for a clear legal framework regarding the use of lethal force with armed drones, in particular outside the battlefield. As more EU States are moving to acquire armed drones and deploying them in conflicts and counter-terrorism operations, there is a clear need to clarify the EU position, and that of its Member States, on their use and proliferation. As the Trump administration is rapidly reversing the few improvements on transparency and accountability made by former president Barack Obama before leaving office, there is currently no political or moral leadership on these controversial practices. Therefore, the EU could play an important role in spearheading this discussion. The European Forum on Armed Drones has outlined its recommendations for this debate in its Call to Action.