Overview of statements on drones at UNGA First Committee this year
By Elizabeth Minor
During UN General Assembly First Committee in 2017, Article 36 followed how states and civil society were discussing armed drones, and which states were drawing attention to these issues. Our week by week accounts, first published in Reaching Critical Will‘s First Committee Monitor, are reproduced here:
Weeks 1 and 2 (2-13 October) – general debate
Armed drones have so far received barely any attention from states at this year’s First Committee. During the general debate only two states, Lebanon and Portugal, raised this issue. During the 2016 general debate four states mentioned armed drones, with ten raising this issue during 2016’s First Committee overall.
Portugal noted that armed drones represented one of a range of new and emerging threats, on which transparency should be encouraged and new law or frameworks may be needed to serve the objective of “protecting civilians and Human Rights.” Lebanon also noted that drones raise humanitarian issues.
The NGO statement on armed drones this year was endorsed by 46 organisations from 17 countries. The statement highlighted the humanitarian harm caused and serious legal concerns raised by some states’ use of armed drones. It also raised the risk that these technologies pose to facilitating a global expansion in the use of force, through lowering political and practical impediments. These NGOs emphasised that despite their highlighting of unacceptable US practice, this issue goes broader than the activities of one state, and an international response is needed.
The NGO statement noted that a process led by the US was currently ongoing to develop political standards on the export and subsequent use of “armed or strike-enabled” ‘unmanned’ aerial vehicles (UAVs). However, this process has not been inclusive of all states or civil society, risks setting standards lower than current international requirements, and does not address current users or producers. (A detailed joint NGO statement on this initiative, published in the first edition of First Committee Monitor, is available here.)
More work by states will therefore be needed towards agreement on the limits of acceptable use of armed drones, the NGOs noted. They emphasised responding to harm, accounting for casualties, upholding the rights of victims, and transparency, accountability and oversight.
Also this week, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the International Disarmament Institute at Pace University and Article 36 launched a new study on The Humanitarian Impact of Drones. The event also included speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, Pakistan (see the side event report in this edition). The study collects in one place key research and perspectives on different aspects of the harm caused by armed drones, from casualties and psychological impacts, through international law, human rights, ethics and morality, to peace and security and gendered perspectives. The intention of the publication is to refocus the conversation on armed drones on the people and places affected by their use, and away from technical details and deadlocked legal debates.
Week 3 (18-22 October) – conventional weapons debate
This year so far during the conventional weapons debate at First Committee, four states have mentioned armed drones in their statements: Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, and Ireland. Cuba did not raise drones in their statements to First Committee during 2016; the other states spoke on this issue last year.
This week, Costa Rica called for “concrete action” on the use of armed drones “outside areas of active hostilities,” expressing agreement with concerns raised by others over the lack of transparency and accountability that has characterised the use of drones, as well as the lack of redress for victims. Costa Rica noted the erosion of democratic control and international scrutiny of the use of force this constitutes.
Cuba also called for the regulation of attacks using military drones, noting the civilian casualties that have been caused with the use of drones. Ecuador called for continued international debate on drones to examine the range of concerns and legal implications associated with these systems.
Ireland emphasised that any use of drones must be “in accordance with international law, including international human rights and humanitarian law,” welcoming continued discussion on the issue of drones in relevant forums including those relating to conventional weapons and human rights.
Also this week, PAX and UNIDIR hosted a side event on “Addressing Armed UAVs: Next Steps for the International Community” (see side event report in this edition). The panel highlighted the human costs of armed drones and the lack of justice to victims, as well as key principles of legality, transparency and accountability that states should apply in the use and transfer of these technologies.
It was noted that any new international process must not lower standards or undermine existing agreements—as is the danger with the current US-led process to develop political standards on the export and subsequent use of armed drones—and should be inclusive of states and civil society UNIDIR will soon be bringing out a study on transparency, accountability and oversight with respect to armed drones, based on a series of expert meetings with states and others held during the past year. This will contain recommendations on how states could take this issue forward.
No resolutions address the issue of armed drones at First Committee this year, however, and no state has yet raised the US-led process or UNIDIR’s work in their interventions. In 2016, the only relevant resolution related to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, the report of whose Group of Governmental Experts recommended the inclusion of armed drones in the Register.
Final round up
At First Committee this year, seven states raised armed drones in their interventions: Lebanon and Portugal during the general debate; Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, and Ireland during the conventional weapons debate; and Pakistan during the ‘other disarmament issues’ segment. All these states, apart from Cuba, raised drones in their statements during First Committee in 2016. In 2016 ten states raised this issue at First Committee, with similar levels of engagement seen in 2015. No resolutions dealing with drones were proposed this year.
The civil society joint statement on armed drones to First Committee this year was endorsed by 46 organisations from 17 countries, marking an increase in endorsements and diversity of organisations on last year, and representing the broad range interest in this issue amongst NGOs and others. Two side events were held on drones this year, attracting considerable interest from civil society and states. Germany and the Netherlands sponsored one of the discussions, which featured preliminary findings and recommendations from a study by UNIDIR of international ways forward on this issue.
In terms of the concerns states raised with respect to drones this year, on the issue of humanitarian harm Lebanon noted humanitarian concerns, with Portugal highlighting the need to protect civilians and human rights. Cuba also drew attention to civilian casualties from the use of drones, and Pakistan noted opposition from the UN Human Rights Council and human rights advocates to extrajudicial killings through the “targeting of civilians through ‘signature strikes’” using drones.
On legal concerns, Ireland highlighted that drones must be used in accordance with international law, including human rights law. Pakistan stated that the “trans-border unauthorised use of armed drones outside of international armed conflict” violates international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as the UN Charter. Costa Rica also noted a lack of transparency and accountability around the use of drones. Pakistan highlighted that non-state actors’ acquisition of drones represented a threat.
In terms of next steps, Costa Rica called for action on this issue, with Portugal suggesting that new laws or frameworks may be needed, and encouraging increased transparency. Pakistan called for international regulations to be developed on the use of drones, with Cuba also making a call for regulation. Ecuador and Ireland welcomed continued debate and discussion on the issue of drones, with Ireland highlighting that this should take place in all relevant forums, including those dealing with human rights.
Outside the First Committee room, a US-led process to develop standards on the export and subsequent use of armed drones continued, with a meeting of a group of states involved reportedly held in Vienna towards the end of October. The US also made a proposal at the meetings of the Missile Technology Control Regime in October to loosen the restrictions placed on the export of armed drones by this framework. Neither of these on-going developments attracted comment from states during First Committee, though civil society organisations raised concerns about the weakness and risks of the US-led process in their joint statement. If the concerns raised by armed drones are to be addressed through international action, greater engagement and debate will however be needed.