On Wednesday October 2, in front of a packed house at the University of Toronto the 2013 Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs grappled with one of the most complex questions in modern conflict: What is it exactly about drones that make us uneasy?
Boston University Professor Neta Crawford and University of Massachusetts Associate Professor Avery Plaw discussed the legal frameworks and ethical questions involved in unmanned weapons, with Janice Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs moderating.
A “drone” is the colloquial name for an unmanned aerial vehicle that is often armed and predominately used under remote, real-time human control. Drones are an attractive military tool because in addition to removing a human pilot from the risks involved in combat operations, they also remove the requirement for the technology, armour, and safety capability of conventional aircraft. Drones allow for greater practicality, are relatively cheap to produce, have a greater effective range, and are more versatile than manned aircraft. The United States is the largest producer and most frequent user of combat drones, having conducted operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen in its efforts to fight the global War On Terror.
One of the first questions that arose during the talk was why the use of drones received more public scrutiny than other military instruments. Is it that perhaps that there is not symmetry of risk in the use of drones? More conventional forms of warfare have combat elements facing an equal level of risk of being subject to bodily harm or death. Drones effectively remove this risk for one side of a conflict and dis-proportionally subject the other side to the full risk of immediate harm.
But maybe our discomfort stems from the reality that there are a lot of questions that we just don’t know to ask. There are not only disputes as to how many people have been killed by drones, but as to their overall effectiveness generally. While the Obama Administration contends that drones are an effective tool in the elimination of enemy combatants, ensuring that their capacity to organize is disrupted, there is wide dispute as to how many civilians get killed in the process. While official American figures put the civilian death-toll of the drone program at around 500-1,000 people, other estimates go as high as 4,700. However, data varies on the subject and it is impossible to be conclusive.
What can be argued is the effectiveness of the use of drones in their overall mission to weaken America’s enemies. But does subjecting a population to the fear of constant threat of attack from high above — in addition to the chilling fact that civilians have been killed — lead to more popular support for the very terrorist organizations that the U.S. is trying to eliminate? In this light, the use of drones can be ultimately counter-productive. They may be a useful tool for the elimination of specific individuals who are out of reach of conventional weapons, but the drone program is not one which readily wins the “hearts and minds” of the population centers they are operating in.
Perhaps it is the legal ambiguity of the use of drones that explains our uneasy acceptance of them as a military tool. Under international legal norms, the use of force against another state is only ever warranted after a country has been attacked or when it is apparent that an attack is going to happen. The use of drones, however, is not conducted against states, but against the individuals who find refuge within them. Drone usage in a country is also typically conducted with the approval of the domestic government, thereby legitimizing use within their borders.
There is an issue, however, regarding the preventative nature of drone warfare. Instead of the typical use of military force to either strike back at an aggressive actor — or even preemptively attacking a coming threat — combat drones are largely used in order to prevent the threat of attack from ever materializing. This is problematic as, under international law, preventative war is largely illegitimate. Should the U.S. be allowed to target (and kill) individuals in countries with which they are not technically at war?
Ethical questions surrounding the use of drones also readily emerge. Should the U.S. be allowed to effectively execute people — including its own citizens present in those disputed areas — without due process? While the U.S. frames its use of drones as a tool in the War on Terror, their moral legitimacy is subject to debate as the seemingly perpetual war enters its twelfth year. While the Obama Administration has arguably shown some restraint in its use of the drone program, it remains unclear what checks and balances are being put in place to ensure that future administrations operate accordingly.
With 76 of the world’s countries now utilizing drone technology in one form or another, it is clear that drones are here to stay, and will continue to reshape the way we think about armed conflict. The legal and ethical questions drawn out last Wednesday in the Isabel Bader Theatre are the same questions policymakers and government leaders will be contending with over the coming years.
Matteo Pirri is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Toronto, from which he graduated last June.