Limiting drone weapons proliferation

May 16, 2014 by

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Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko have written an important piece in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs warning of the dangers to the United States of drone weapons proliferation, and offering sensible proposals for limiting that danger.

Kreps and Zenko emphasize what many others have noted, that the proliferation of weaponized drones in the absence of agreed international rules for controlling their use could have dangerous and destabilizing consequences for U.S. and global security. If other states follow Washington’s approach of launching attacks across borders without authorization or notice, international constraints on the use of force could be weakened.

Other states are likely to be tempted to use these seemingly low-risk weapons beyond recognized war zones in settings where the deployment of ground troops would not be viable, as the United States has done in Yemen and tribal regions of Pakistan. The availability of drone weaponry lowers the threshold for the use of military force and makes armed conflict more likely.

The United States should act now, before other states have fully developed capabilities, to seek international agreement on limiting the proliferation of armed drones and controlling their use. “Without U.S. leadership,” Kreps and Zenko emphasize, “it will be extremely difficult to get an international coalition to agree on a credible arrangement governing the use of armed drones.”

The authors identify two approaches for preventing the proliferation of drone weapons. The first is for the United States to get its own house in order by establishing fully transparent rules for target selection and permissible uses of these weapons. They recommend the formation of an independent government review panel, perhaps modeled on the Guantanamo Review Task Force and the panel to review the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.

The proposed review panel could establish policies, as recommended by Human Rights Watch and other legal rights groups last year, disclosing the legal criteria used to identify potential targets, the standards for distinguishing between combatants and civilians, the civilian protection protocols and training given to drone operators, and the standards for post-strike procedures to investigate the legality of strikes and credible reports of civilian harm and where necessary to provide compensation for victims.

Kreps and Zenko also recommend steps to tighten international rules against the export of drone weapons technology. This could be accomplished by expanding and strengthening the restrictions already in place through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or by creating an entirely new proliferation control regime specifically focused on drone systems. This could include the creation of an international regulatory organization tasked with establishing and monitoring global standards for transparency and responsible use of drone systems.

Kudos to Kreps and Zenko for emphasizing the need to establish rules for controlling the use and spread of drone weapons.

David Cortright teaches peace studies and nonviolent social change at the University of Notre Dame and is the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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