Droning On, and On, and On…

One of the non-economic arguments which has arisen from the OccupyWallStreet protest offshoot in Washington, D.C. shows concern over the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones. The model most people are familiar with is the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. It was originally designed for monitoring and surveillance purposes, but it has since been adapted to carry ordinance.

The Predator and other UAVs have carried out a number of strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the world. They’re currently used by the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. They are also used for domestic surveillance by law enforcement here in the United States. They are successful for a multitude of reasons, including their small size, low heat output and ability to fly slowly and very close to the ground, making them remarkably difficult to shoot down.

MQ-1B Predator

The D.C. protesters seem to be chiefly concerned with the civilian casualties associated with their use in striking high-profile targets. Drones have been remarkably effective in eliminating targets, but are also associated with a large number of collateral damage – civilian deaths and casualties.

I first wrote about the CIA’s use of drones way back in April of 2009, even before I’d changed my name, and my major concerns were twofold: civilian casualties and the moral dilemma of taking the human risk out of warfare. After two years of carefully following the debate, I’ve realized a third problem which lies in the realm of international law.

As Scott Shane wrote about in his NYT column posted October 8, the United States is on the cusp of losing its monopoly on successful UAV technology. China is very capable of producing high-quality drones of its own, and to whom China sells that technology would be very much its own business.

Therefore, we have to be extraordinarily careful of the norm we’re setting by using drones to cross borders into nations where we have no formal declaration of war in order to destroy high-profile targets. If we begin building an argument in international law that this sort of activity is permissible, it may easily backfire on us in the future when other nations are capable of launching drone attacks of their own.

The Law of Armed Conflict, or LOAC, is the part of international law which governs the conduct of armed hostilities amongst nations. A major tenant of LOAC is the principle of Distinction, or the engagement of only valid military targets. Estimates on how many civilian casualties each of the American drone strikes have caused vary significantly, but it is widely accepted there is little validity to the CIA’s official claim of zero collateral damage.

The argument the United States is slowly crafting is that if anywhere from 20-80% of those killed by a drone strike were combatants, that’s a valid and legal military action under the Distinction element of LOAC. Should that become an acceptable international practice, one can imagine the implications for strikes by China against Thailand or Iran against Israel. We would see an absolutely abhorrent number of civilian deaths, enough to cause serious public outcry about the laws of war and drone strikes – not unlike the modern movement to ban landmines.

There have been a number of drone strikes which have destroyed those who would seek to do harm to peaceful civilians, and that is a good thing, but those actions must be weighed against the number of civilians killed. And, more importantly, all nations – the United States included – must pay very careful attention to the precedent being set. There are plenty of historical examples to draw lessons from – poison gas, landmines – and all actors with current access to drone technology would do well to learn those lessons before repeating them.

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About Alex Fitzpatrick

Alex Fitzpatrick is Homepage Editor for Time.com, also covering technology, policy and cybersecurity. He previously covered politics and policy for Mashable. Fitzpatrick has a degree in International Relations from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he also served as News Director and Station Manager for the campus radio station, 89.3 WGSU. Follow Fitzpatrick on Twitter at @AlexJamesFitz or email him at alex.fitzpatrick@timeinc.com.
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