Remote Warfare Conference

On the 6th and 7th of December 2017, the Centre for Conflict Studies at the Utrecht University held a two-day conference on The Intimacies of Remote Warfare, dealing with the changing nature of warfare. Various experts in the field, including EFAD-members Chris Woods from Airwars and Jessica Dorsey from Rights Watch UK, shared their insights on the apparent paradoxical remote, yet intimate, nature of new forms of warfare in which armed drones play a crucial role.

Nature of modern warfare

The development and prolific use of drone technologies in- and outside of conventional conflicts have given rise to strategies of remote warfare. This new form of warfare has instigated much political and academic debate over its nature and legitimacy. Scholars such as Mark Duffield and Derek Gregory have coined concepts like ‘network wars’ and ‘everywhere war’ in an attempt to understand the complexities of these new forms of conflict. In one of the first sessions of the conference, Jolle Demmers and Lauren Gould, professors at the Centre for Conflict Studies at the Utrecht University, investigated the importance of how these wars are produced and the more fundamental transformation of modern warfare triggered by the use of remote control technologies. Drawing on their case study of AFRICOM and the hunt for Joseph Kony, the rebel leader of the LRA, they illustrate a roll-back of conventional warfare strategies that entail large-scale military presence in the area of intervention. Said to be due to a ‘war fatigue’, Demmers and Gould explained that these new war strategies, that entail the use of drone technologies, have given rise to what they call ‘liquid warfare’, meaning that wars are produced by alliances that frequently entail actors pursuing their objectives for conflicting aims. Demmers and Gould’s research not only highlights the consequences of new technologies on the strategies of warfare but also the complex and often asymmetric power relations that underlie the conflicts we see today.

Illusion of intimacy

From an ethical perspective, Derek Gregory, professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia, examined the histories and intimacies of remote warfare as experienced by those engaged in and targeted by remote military interventions. The claim is made that the intimacy of war that was lost during the First World War, when airplanes and submarines increased the distance between combatants, has resurfaced with the use of drone technologies for surveillance and combat operations. However, Gregory illustrated that the intimacy is an illusion. Firstly, contrary to the claims made concerning the accuracy of drones, distinguishing between combatants and civilians has proven to be problematic. This has resulted in large numbers of civilians casualties and the infringement of international law. Secondly, Gregory illustrated that ‘civilians’ do not simply exist but are produced by socially situated interpretations of drone videos. The category of ‘civilians’ is often reduced to women and children, while at the same time the group of individuals who are deemed to be legitimate targets – such as Taliban-supporters, militants, insurgents and rebels – is growing. A third argument for the illusion of intimacy is the fact that drone warfare is asymmetrical. The targets often times only hear the droning sound of the unmanned aerial vehicles, not being able to defend themselves against the strikes.

This military illusion of intimacy and absolute precision, which should have come along with the use of armed drones, was also denied by Chris Woods, investigative journalist and director of Airwars. By monitoring and assessing civilians casualties from international airstrikes in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Airwars demonstrates that still too many civilians are dying by drone strikes. According to Woods, the ‘precision’ of drones might lay in knowing that a bomb gets where it is meant to go, but it does not reflect on the precision of knowing its targets, as drone videos sometimes even have difficulties with distinguishing between a shovel and a rifle, let alone combatants and civilians. Woods also mentioned that the coalition airstrikes often result in civilian casualties because they take place in heavily populated, urban areas. All while governments remain opaque and unfathomable on their drone policy.

Call for transparency

Jessica Dorsey, Senior Legal and Policy Officer at Rights Watch UK, considered what can be done against this lack of transparency and explained from a legal perspective why this is so important. Focusing on the UK, Rights Watch is fighting the British government’s expansive claims of secrecy, that allowed it to suppress information on the legal advice that formed the basis of the lethal drone strike in August 2015, killing two British citizens: Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin. Transparency is of key importance because refusing to disclose the legal justification allows governments to fundamentally reinterpret key constraints on the use of force under international law.

Elaborating on the current position of European states with regard to the use of armed drones, she used EFAD’s five action points to illustrate what steps needs to be taken to ensure transparency and accountability. Later on, the documentary Digital Civilian Detectives was screened to illustrate the potential role of civilians in contributing to transparency. Reflecting on the documentary, Abigail Watson, Research Officer at Remote Control, explained how her organization is trying to raise more public awareness on remote warfare. The fact that all of us can be digital witnesses, with the help of satellites images and information from organizations such as Airwars, demonstrates the fact that ‘secrecy is no longer a good strategy for governments’.

To conclude, the conference shed light on the shadowy nature of technological advancements leading towards an increase of remote strategies and the tendency to deal with threats preemptively. The interdisciplinary character of the attendees and panelists led to an interesting exchange of ideas and (data-gathering) strategies for approaching remote warfare. The questions posed by the attending scholars concerning the nature of remote warfare, how it is produced and what kind of society legitimates the strategies of remote warfare, led to the conclusion that, despite the supposed paradoxical remote yet intimate nature of modern warfare, remote warfare is first and foremost ‘remote’ and that the ascribed intimacy is asymmetrical and for this reason an illusion.

Journalists and civil society experts warned for the political implications of the methods of remote warfare and emphasized the need for independent research and public debate on the implications for human rights, security and international law. Current policies are playing ‘catch-up’ and urgently need our attention as the developments of warfare discussed here have far-reaching implications.