Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – have received a lot of attention from both citizens, militaries and politicians. Drones can be used for a whole lot of useful purposes. Drones open up opportunities in the field of photography and delivery, they can help farmers, monitor wildlife, help locate natural disaster victims and even help counter deforestation. But drones are also used for intelligence purposes. Of course Hollywood and independent filmmakers have made movies and documentaries centered around the drone theme, for example the Ethan Hawke drama Good Kill and the death conspiracy theory around Paul Walker, the star of the Fast and the Furious movies.  Another example is Drone, a documentary by Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei. In Drone, surviving relatives and human rights lawyers, but also young drone operators who recruited in the gaming world, give an account of the impact of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Drone makes a clear, but in my view one-sided, statement for the urgency of a political, legal and moral debate on the use of (armed) drones.

Several aspects of the deployment of drones during warfare will be discussed during the upcoming Peace and Security Salon: “Drones and Robots as means of modern warfare” which will be held at the Peace Palace Library on Thursday, the 9th of april. Speaker Professor Terry D. Gill  will address the issue whether technology has left the law behind. The use of drones as a weapons system has increased exponentially in recent years and this has given rise to a significant degree of controversy and a number of specific questions relating to their use. These include whether the use of drones is in conformity with international law, both in terms of a legal basis for the use of force and in terms of the applicable legal regimes regulating the use of lethal force in and outside armed conflict, in particular international humanitarian law and international human rights law (see a previous blog on this subject: http://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/2012/10/the-legality-of-drone-attacks-2/).

Autonomous weapons systems with an offensive capability to independently choose and engage targets ( sometimes referred to as ‘killer robots’) are not yet in use in any State’s inventory, but various prototypes are being researched and could become operational within the foreseeable future. These should not be confused with automated weapons systems, which are pre-programmed to engage one particular type of threat and which have been used for static defence for many years now (e.g. CIWIS/Goalkeeper vessel protection systems). Questions which arise in relation to such autonomous weapons systems include whether they are potentially capable of complying with IHL requirements in conditions of contemporary warfare, issues of accountability and responsibility and a more ethical question relating to the desirability of designing a machine which is independently capable of killing a human being. These and related topics will be the subject of his presentation.

Air Commodore Prof. Dr. Frans Osinga, who will also speak about drones at the Peace and Security Salon, also stresses the importance of a serious debate on drones - a debate which is often absent in the media. Whereas the media often frames the drones debate in terms of morality (innocent civilian casualties, playstation-mentality or moral disengagement of the drone operators), Air Commodore Prof. Dr. Frans Osinga will talk about the military viewpoint on the use of (armed) drones.

Besides the legal and military questions concerning the deployment of drones,  the use of drone attacks in warfare has raised several ethical questions which are concerned with the role of humans (both combatants and non-combatants (civilian population) in warfare).  The third speaker of the Peace and Security salon, Christine Boshuijzen-van Burken will speak about the ethical aspects regarding the use of drones as a means of modern warfare. According to Boshuijzen, there are three technology-related pitfalls which could occur when drones are used during a military mission. The first pitfall is the danger of developing a ‘Predator view’; the second pitfall is the misinterpretation of visual data and the third is the prevention of streamlined communication. She will describe these three pitfalls in the context of the Kunduz airstrike incident.

You are welcome to attend the Peace and Security Salon about drones and robots as a means of modern warfare on Thursday 9 april.

If you wish to attend the salon, please register and pay here (before April 1, 2015).

Please note that the number of seats is limited and will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.


Librarian's choice

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

  • M. Aaronson (eds.) (et al),  Precision Strike Warfare and International Intervention: Strategic, Ethico-Legal, and Decisional Implications, Abingdon, Routledge, 2015.
  • P.L.Bergen and D. Rothenberg (eds.), Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015
  • C. Enemark, Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age, Abingdon, Routledge, 2014
  • M.N. Schmitt, "Narrowing the International Law Divide: The Drone Debate Matures", The Yale Journal of International Law Online, 39 (2014), Spring, pp. 1-14.
  • M.N. Schmitt, "Drone Law; A Reply to UN Special Rapporteur Emmerson", Virginia Journal of International Law Digest, 55 (2014), pp. 13-28.

Relevant PPL-keywords for further research

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