Dangers of Drone Warfare
SECTION 3 –Human Rights and International Law
Weaponized drones blur the line between military and civilian space, between a fair fight and summary execution, between peer confrontation and a royal hunt.
The vigilantism of drone killing has been surging while the U.N. sheriff seems to think that there are no laws adequate to stop it. However, existing international laws governing the conduct of war and internationally recognized standards of human rights are sufficient to prevent the scourge of drone criminality if they are interpreted from the perspective of those living under drones.
Law of War Principles
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Law of War Manual sets out five principles that must guide the conduct of war, including targeting and selection of weapons, based on international law. These principles are universally recognized, although there are varying interpretations with respect to their application.
The manual discusses the principles, in italics, and their inter-relationship as follows:
“Military necessity justifies certain actions necessary to defeat the enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. Conversely humanity forbids actions unnecessary to achieve that object. Proportionality requires that even when actions may be justified by military necessity, such actions (may) not be unreasonable or excessive. Distinction underpins the parties’ responsibility to comport their behavior with military necessity, humanity, and proportionality by requiring parties to a conflict to apply certain legal categories, principally the distinction between the armed forces and the civilian population. Lastly, honor supports the entire system and gives parties confidence in it.”
While these principles are applied to conduct in the use of weapons, the principles have been also used to judge whether certain weapons, by their very nature, result in the violation of one or more of the five principles.
For example, an international treaty was established in 2008 to ban the use of cluster bombs. This was based on the fact that their very use, under any circumstance, violates the principle of distinction, which means, the treaty says,
“the parties to a conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants…and that the civilian population and individual civilians enjoy the general protection against dangers arising from military operations.”
(Note: The cluster bomb treaty has been adopted by 110 nations; Brazil, China, India, Israel, Russia and the U.S. are among nations not signing. The treaty banning the use of landmines has been adopted by 164 nations; but China, Russia and the U.S. are among those nations unwilling to sign.)
We will document below that military and police drone surveillance equipment and weaponized drones must be banned because their use violates the legal principles of war of humanity, distinction, proportionality and honor, as outlined in the DOD manual.
3.A. Military and Police Drone Surveillance
3.A.1 – Drone surveillance is a weapon. Military and police drone surveillance is in and of itself a weapon, based on technology that has been developed to enable invasion and occupation. Its use may accurately be viewed as an attack against an individual, group or population.
More specifically, drone surveillance technology, enabling a government to relentlessly watch individuals, groups and populations, is a weapon of generalized intimidation and threat. The act of 24/7 watching can lead to such harms as: fear, trauma, submission, self-censorship, loss of self-esteem, a sense of futility, constraint in self-expression, and a fear of public protest, the latter an activity fundamental to the proper functioning of government and human society.
In releasing a United Nations report that discussed the impact of surveillance technology on the rights of protesters, U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:
“New technologies can be used to mobilize and organize peaceful protests, form networks and coalitions…thus driving social change. But, as we have seen, they can be and are being used to restrict and infringe on protesters’ rights, to surveil and track them, and invade their privacy.”
As the 1st. Army Brigade report on the use of a surveillance blimp over Kabul, Afghanistan, noted at the beginning of this section, said:
“Insurgents and Local nationals alike believe the blimp can see everything and will act differently when it is up.”
The military and police use of drone surveillance entails, in keeping with its origins, viewing all within its gaze as suspects and potential targets for arrest, detention or attack. Psychological and emotional harm and the dignity of those under surveillance are not considerations.
The military and police use of drone surveillance equipment violates a number of articles of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notably Article 12, protection against “arbitrary interference” with privacy; Article 18, protection of thought, conscience and religion; Article 19, protection of freedom of expression, “through any media, regardless of frontiers”; and Article 20, protection of “the right of peaceful assembly and association.”
Recognizing military drone surveillance as a weapon means also that its use, rather than protecting civilians, violates the principle of distinction, the Law of Armed Conflict that requires that militaries distinguish between civilians and combatants before employing weapons. Using a drone to stalk even just one individual violates the rule of distinction because this process necessarily will mean that other individuals and groups will fall under surveillance, making them potential targets, a particular concern in situations in which civilians are intermingling with combatants, who may also be wearing civilian clothing.
Military and police drone surveillance also violates the standards outlined in the Department of Defence Law of War Manual, which says
“Humanity animates certain law of war rules, including:
- Protections for the civilian population and civilian objects.
- Prohibitions on weapons that are calculated to cause superfluous injury.
- Prohibitions on weapons that are inherently indiscriminate.
3.A.2 – Mass data collection and artificial intelligence must not be used for military and police targeting.
The use of mass data collection by drones, and processing by artificial intelligence, for the targeting of individuals and groups, which has been fundamental to the accelerating development of weaponized drones and military and police drone surveillance, must be banned.
First, as noted above, there is evidence of serious error in visual identification in drone scanning as well as inaccuracies in biometric data. Furthermore, and critically, AI processing technologies, such as facial recognition software, have proven to be biased against people of color, as noted above, making use of this technology, in and of itself, life-threatening and subject to banning under international law, including those laws intended to protect civilian populations, mentioned above.
“There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty…It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors (electronic signals) are mis-attributed to certain people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”
And the growing reliance on data, as compared to information gathered more personally, means that people are reduced to data and more easily killed without conscience.
Further, the mass processing of drone-gathered data, its cross-processing with other databases and the application of artificial intelligence would appear to increase the likelihood of error.
Data points achieved through video and hyperspectral scanning, and conclusions reached through artificial intelligence, are static conclusions that may result in completely inaccurate, fatal conclusions about human intention and behavior. First and foremost, they cannot “know” the instant-by-instant direction and flow of human inspiration for good, on which we all depend.
These technologies are sold as being able to plumb the human mind and spirit and come to conclusions about targeting and killing, and from great distance. The gathering of this data presupposes achieving an understanding of the human mind and spirit that has yet to be captured. The mere gathering of this kind of data alone is an affront to humanity.
We must ask whether the policy of mass surveillance typified by the U.S. Army blimp in Afghanistan, and enabled by drones, would be tolerated inside the borders of the largely white nations that are the current perpetrators of mass drone surveillance?
The use of data gathered by drones violates several articles of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notably: Article 2, protecting rights regardless of “race, color, sex, language, religion” and other distinctions; and Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.
With respect to the Law of War, the use of drone-gathered data violates the principles of humanity and distinction, the responsibility to take care to absolutely distinguish between non-combatants and combatants.
“Today, the Data Machine doesn’t care where it is fighting. It doesn’t matter whether targets are hiding in Hindu Kush caves or in villages of the Fertile Crescent. Nor does Predator care, or Reaper, or Global Hawk, or any other of our other aptly and awkwardly named all-seeing eyes. In fact, they don’t care about anything: they are machines. But the men and women behind Gilgamesh the black box and behind the entire Machine also don’t care, for every place is reduced to geographic coordinates that flash across a screen in seconds. Nations, armies, and even people are reduced to links and networks.” William Arkin – “Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare”
3.B. – Weaponized Drones
Aerial weaponized drones have two unique characteristics essential to their popularity among governmental and non-state perpetrators of drone attacks, characteristics that also mean that aerial weaponized drones must be banned.
First, weaponized drones can stalk an individual, group or populations for days on end from the air and then kill, an eye in the sky that can kill from the sky, anywhere, anytime.
Trauma and harm to life
As has been well documented in this report, civilians living in areas in which there are or have been drone attacks experience trauma, sometimes severe and disabling trauma, as well as disruption to normal economic, educational, cultural, religious and social life. More specifically, in addition to trauma, one drone attack alone can bring the loss of the love and care of family members, loss of community leaders, loss of income from those killed, loss of educational opportunity, having to move to live in other areas for work or from fear, all life-changing, possibly permanent harms to civilians.
These devastating consequences, which have affected tens of thousands in nations under drone attack, are based simply on the use of weaponized drones. Even if a drone attack is directed against a strictly military target, the fact of a drone attack generates fear and disruption of life to all in the area who know about it. Nevertheless, as suggested by the German Ministry of Defense document cited above, weaponized drones will be used largely in situations in which civilians, non-combatants and combatants are intermingled.
Initiating and prolonging war.
We have offered evidence above that the use of weaponized drones have likely been key factors in starting wars, enabling military intervention that would not have otherwise taken place, and creating political and military conditions that have inflamed and prolonged civil wars, which in the case of Yemen has become a regional war with ghastly impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
The very nature of the weaponized drone that enables remote killing has prompted the perpetrators of drone attacks to take military action that would have been impossible for them politically were they to send military people to be physically present to undertake the attacks for which they used drones.
This raises the issue of honor, a principle described in the DOD manual: “Honor, requires a certain amount of fairness in offense and defense”. This is a pivotal issue in relation to the use of weaponized drones.
The basic premise of war has been, until now, that opposing forces commit persons to a battle zone understanding that the winner will be the side that can inflict the most death and suffering within the battle zone, sufficient but not in excess of what is necessary to cause one side to lay down its arms first. The laws of war are also intended to confine the war zones and limit harm to civilians.
However, what of more automated war when one side has to commit a great deal fewer humans, or no humans, to the sufferings of battle, particularly if the foe is relatively weak technologically, as is the Taliban in comparison to the United States in Afghanistan?
In such a case, the force equipped with weaponized drones and other high-tech weapons can continually grind down on its opponent for generations, committing relatively few troops.
In “A Theory of the Drone”, Gregoire Chamayou observes that:
“The right to kill with impunity in war…seems to be based upon the tacit structural premise: if one has the right to kill without crime, it is because that right is granted mutually.”
“But,” he continues, “what happens to that right when there is no longer any effective possibility of reciprocity?”
At this point, he says, “the ethic of combat shifts and becomes an ethic of putting to death…an ethic of butchers or executioners, but not for combatants”.
The tremendous imbalance in deadly force and suffering that characterizes most of current drone war is typified in this excerpt from “Wired for War”, describing the scene inside a drone operations center during the Iraq War in which Americans watched a battle in Iraq seen through the eye of a drone:
“The operator of the drone flying over the villa was at a base in Qatar. He was amazed by the footage that he was watching. News of the ongoing battle spread through the command center and soon over forty off-duty soldiers had crowded into the small control room. Many brought in snacks. They squirmed to get the best view of the battle playing out on the flat-panel screen. Cheers would erupt every time there was a particularly big explosion. As one of the soldiers later described his experience during the battle, ‘It was like a Super Bowl party in there.’” P. W. Singer, author of “Wired for War”
He then offers this observation:
“General Robert E. Lee once wrote, ‘It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it.’ The new technologies of war are changing the experience of war itself.”
The imbalance in the physical commitment of humans to combat is most dramatically exemplified by the situation at the nearly 20 drone attack control bases in the U.S. where drone war operators return to home and their families after their “work” shifts, going from arm chairs at the control panels to arm chairs in their living rooms.
This imbalance in the physical commitment of humans to combat is, of course, what has made drone assassination commonplace.
In addition, the imbalance is driving the development of the next wave of weaponized drones, faster, carrying larger missile and bomb loads and more and more dependent on AI for guidance and targeting.
In future wars in which both sides are equipped with highly-developed, semi-robotic or nearly fully robotic weapons, the scene is set for machines destroying machines until the human, non-combatant population of one side is increasingly exposed to the killing machines of the other side. No matter what, wars end only when humans die and suffer immensely.
The process we are witnessing therefore raises not only the law of war principle of honor but also proportionality.
The DOD Law of War Manual says that the principle of proportionality
“creates obligations to refrain from attacks in which the expected harm incidental to such attacks would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage and to take feasible precautions in planning and conducting attacks to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and other persons and objects protected from being made the object of attack.”
If this principle alone were applied by the U.N., weaponized drones would be banned based not only on the havoc and human suffering they are causing, but the prospect of much more to come.
In addition, the use of weaponized drones violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly: Article 1, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood;” Article 2, “requiring equal treatment, regardless of distinctions such as race, color, sex, language or political or other opinion;” Article 3: “the right to life, liberty and security of person” Article 5, “the right to be free of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Articles 7 – 11, dealing with the right to due process under law; Article 12, “the right to privacy;” and Article 20, the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Wars are not simply unfortunate side shows in the global drama of human relations. Tragically, they continue to be central to creating our personal and societal limitations, our choices in life and changes in our life circumstances.
Wars and the preparation for war determine our destinies, for those under attack and for the attacker, physical and spiritual destinies real, active and profound, regardless of whether this reality is embraced or denied.
Just as the certainty of death impels and inspires our lives, our choice of whether to use death-dealing-weapons, and which weapons we use, determines our personal futures, the future of our societies and the future of humanity itself.