Why debate in Canada over military drone use is sorely needed

Canada can expect more drone sales from the US to Canada under the Trump administration, writes Ernie Regehr, making a debate over regulations even more urgent. 

By: /
November 1, 2017
US military drones
A US Army Grey Eagle drone is pictured alongside Australian military servicemen during the Talisman Saber joint military exercises between Australia and the United States at Williamson Airfield in northeast Australia, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Earlier this year, Canada’s chief of defence staff assured Canadians that the Armed Forces won’t be using the armed drones they are bent on acquiring on “Hollywood” style assassination missions.

That is certainly good to know, but it will take more than personal pledges to mitigate concerns about the uses and abuses of armed, remotely piloted aerial vehicles.

A clear national policy framework to guide and restrain Canada’s entry into the armed drone world is an obvious requirement, but so too is Canadian engagement with the international community in elaborating global standards for drone operations and transfers.

The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) likes to say that armed drones are just another weapon system, but, in fact, they have particular characteristics that involve unique risks. Long-distance drones, for example, can be both remote from and constantly present in theatres of combat. With pilots that are remote and out of harm’s way, while the aircraft themselves hover indefinitely over potential targets, drone operations tilt towards the order to fire, and, inevitably, the resort-to-force threshold is lowered.

The vaunted “precision strike” capabilities of drones also spawn a seemingly irresistible penchant for “taking out” selected bad guys, some far away from any combat zone. They promote a quick fix impulse that not only flouts the rule of international law, but usurps the politics and diplomacy that, as Chris Cole of the Drone Wars UK website reminds us, should focus on the tougher and longer-term imperative of addressing the political, social, and economic sources of conflict.

And “precision” drone strikes don’t necessarily mean fewer civilians are killed. Estimates and claims vary widely, with the UK’s Guardian reporting one American study of air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, which found that drone strikes were 10 times more likely to cause civilian casualties than were strikes by manned aircraft.

The humanitarian impact of drones also goes beyond their physical destructiveness to inflict special psychological damage on populations persistently under threat, even when actual attacks are intermittent. A study of drone use in Yemen over more than a decade found that surviving populations reported high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder — linked particularly to the sense of pervasive and seemingly unremitting danger lurking overhead. Furthermore, drones on extended surveillance missions, with no personnel on location, are also more apt to stray across international boundaries in violations of territorial integrity.

So, any move by Canada toward the use of armed drones imposes on it a clear obligation to work multilaterally to clarify operational, legal, and ethical questions, to establish accountability mechanisms, and to better understand the political, humanitarian, and psychological impacts of drone use.

A year ago, the US put forward a “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” which Canada signed, along with 52 other countries. The statement acknowledges that the misuse of armed drones by state or non-state actors “could fuel conflict and instability, and facilitate terrorism and organized crime.” It thus goes on to identify four principles to guide transfers and use: adherence to international law; adherence to multilateral export control and nonproliferation regimes; transparency (but with the qualifier, “where appropriate”); and continued international engagement on drone transfers and use.

"Any move by Canada toward the use of armed drones imposes on it a clear obligation to work multilaterally."

These are obviously generic principles rather than robust accountability measures, and at Washington’s Stimson Center, drone policy analyst Rachel Stohl warns that in the absence of specific regulations with verifiable compliance provisions, questionable practices — like American drone attacks on grounds of self-defence in an open-ended “war on terror” — could become normalized and promote an “environment of impunity.”

The Canadian Press quotes DND officials as acknowledging that "the policy and operational questions posed by the use of these systems are significant and require careful thought and discussion within Canada and internationally.” The European Parliament has been engaged in such discussions and has prepared a set of model criteria by which all EU states are called on to control military and dual-use drone technology and equipment, in accord with obligations states have assumed under the Arms Trade Treaty and a 2008 agreement on a common European position on arms transfers. The former is intended to prevent, among other things, transfers of equipment where there is a risk of it being used in war crimes and attacks on civilians, while the latter focuses on preventing repression and international aggression.

But the most consequential provision is potentially the one promoting transparency. It calls on states to report in detail on all instances of the resort to lethal force with drones, in both armed conflict and non-armed conflict situations, to identity intended targets, and to promptly acknowledge each strike and its impact.

One arms control agreement that currently applies to the international transfer of drones is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an arrangement by a group of 35 states meant to prevent the spread of cruise and ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Drones are not missiles, but they share characteristics with engine-powered cruise missiles, and under the MTCR there is an agreed prohibition on exports of both ballistic and air-breathing missiles that can travel more than 300 kms and carry more than 500 kgs, a category that includes drones.

While the US has, for the most part, been honouring the restriction on drones, that will end as the Trump administration paves the way for drone sales to Canada and other states. China is not part of the MTCR and has become the leading exporter of military drones, and the US wants to improve its market share. In other words, while the MTCR is having some positive impact in restraining the spread of ballistic missiles, the international community cannot rely on it to meet the challenge of drones.

Informal multilateral discussions of measures to control the transfer and use of drones are under way. In the last three years, including just last month, there have been drone discussions in side events at the UN General Assembly’s First (Disarmament) Committee, and in 2015 the UN Office of Disarmament produced a Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Canada is actively exploring the acquisition of both unarmed and armed drones, including efforts to solve the unique communications challenges that face drone operations in the Arctic. But, before joining the armed drone club, Canada has a responsibility to engage in multilateral discussions and to press for the development of a formal and robust arms control and regulatory regime for armed drones.