Overview of statements on drones at UNGA First Committee 2018, and mapping of international activity
By Elizabeth Minor
During UN General Assembly First Committee in 2018, Article 36 is following states’ and civil society’s interventions on armed drones. Our week by week accounts, first published in Reaching Critical Will‘s First Committee Monitor, are reproduced here. See also our Mapping of International activity by states and the UN on armed drones, which includes a review of the themes raised in statements made to international forums by states on drones (last updated July 2019).
Week 1 and 2 8-19 October (general debate and civil society statements):
During First Committee’s General Debate this year, seven states mentioned armed or military drones in their statements. These were Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Ireland, Nepal, Portugal, and Trinidad and Tobago. Cuba, Ecuador, Ireland and Portugal spoke on armed drones at First Committee last year, but Chile, Nepal and Trinidad and Tobago have not raised the subject before. As in previous years, no resolutions have been proposed on armed drones in First Committee this year.
Trinidad and Tobago raised concerns around civilian harm from the use of armed drones, their implications for international peace and security, and spoke against the ethical, legal and humanitarian consequences of uses “incompatible with international law.”
Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nepal and Portugal highlighted armed drones within the context of other emerging technologies and concerns, including autonomous weapons and the weaponisation of cyber and outer space.
Nepal called for strong national and international regulatory frameworks and the promotion of responsible behaviour amongst states and non-state actors, highlighting the potential for ethical and moral concerns from misuse. Portugal proposed transparency, and either adapting existing law or developing new frameworks, for the goals of protecting civilians and human rights. Chile highlighted the complexities and challenges to International Humanitarian Law and human rights generated by drones. Cuba called for the regulation of armed drones alongside the prohibition of autonomous weapons. Ecuador proposed the need for regulation in the context of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), and observed that the regulation of trade alone would not be sufficient.
Regarding trade, Ireland reported that states devoted increased attention to “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” in meetings of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which Ireland co-chaired this year. (The MTCR’s aim is to restrict the spread of delivery systems for nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles and drones). Though not mentioned in Ireland’s statement, this increased attention may be due in part to a US proposal to downgrade restrictions on drone exports within the MTCR.
In the civil society presentations, Non-Violence International Southeast Asia presented a joint statement on behalf of 54 organisations, from 20 countries, and the regions of Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. More organisations from more countries endorsed this year’s statement than ever before.
The NGOs highlighted testimony from a family affected by a drone strike in Yemen, and noted the harm caused in communities by current drone use, as well as ethical and legal concerns, and the risks of some states’ complicity in others’ illegal strikes. They welcomed the common understanding that drones are included within the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty and encouraged stronger export controls. They stressed that states must also, however, move beyond issues of trade to actively decide what role – if any – drone technologies should play in the use of force, and articulate what the specific limits and standards for their use are. The statement called for a progressive, inclusive, international process to be developed on this issue, welcoming the UN Secretary-General’s commitment in his Agenda for Disarmament that UN institutions would support states to undertake such a process.
Weeks 3 and 4 – 22 October – 2 November conventional weapons and other disarmament measures
During the debates on conventional weapons and other disarmament measures, fourteen states raised drones in their statements. These were Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Cuba (twice), Ecuador, El Salvador, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Portugal, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.
This brings the total number of states that have highlighted drones in First Committee statements this year to sixteen (Chile and Nepal also mentioned drones in the general debate). This is a steep increase on last year’s session, when only seven states referred to drones, and on 2016 and 2015, when ten and nine states did so, respectively.
Austria, Bulgaria, Brazil, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Portugal highlighted the need to ensure that the use of drones complied with or was grounded in international law. Some raised international humanitarian law in particular, with Ireland drawing attention to international human rights law. El Salvador also condemned uses contrary to the law, and Trinidad and Tobago highlighted the ethical, legal, and humanitarian consequences of use incompatible with international law. Costa Rica similarly called for attention on the humanitarian, human rights and international legal impacts of drones, and on moral and ethical standards for their use. Pakistan noted that unauthorised trans-border use represented a violation of various laws, and also highlighted the Human Rights Council and civil society’s condemnation of extrajudicial killings using drones.
Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, and Trinidad and Tobago highlighted different aspects of the humanitarian impacts and harm to communities or civilians caused by the use of drones, including loss of life, psychological damage and lack of reparation for victims. Trinidad and Tobago also noted the risks posed by drones to international peace and security. Costa Rica raised concern at the lack of transparency and accountability in the use of drones, and noted that this eroded democratic oversight and international scrutiny. El Salvador also called for transparency, with Brazil noting that transparency, accountability, and oversight was needed to ensure compliance with the law.
The Netherlands and Pakistan proposed that non-state armed groups acquiring armed drones represented a threat.
Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Thailand situated the need to address drones wholly or partly within the context of addressing the ethical, legal, and other implications of the availability of new technologies. The Netherlands highlighted the need to consider positive applications as well as risks.
In terms of responding to the issues raised by armed drones, Ireland and the Netherlands highlighted the US-led process to create politically binding export control standards, with the Netherlands also reaffirming their strong commitment to existing standards. Ecuador noted that the regulation of international trade would be insufficient to address concerns around new technologies.
On the use of drones or the issue more broadly, Ireland welcomed efforts by states, UNIDIR and civil society to promote continued discussion. The Netherlands noted the need for additional international understandings around the use of drones, which should result from inclusive discussions. Thailand proposed that ongoing discussions on new technologies including drones should be based on codifying practices and the progressive development of the law. Cuba and Pakistan called for the regulation of armed drones, with Costa Rica calling for concrete action on use outside of “active hostilities.” El Salvador also noted that appropriate and effective international standards to prevent damaging impacts were needed. Mexico highlighted the importance of open, transparent, inclusive discussions on the limits of the use of force, and the legal, technical, and ethical aspects of new technologies, noting that such discussions should result in the regulation of armed drones.
Final summary for First Committee 2018
At First Committee this year, states paid considerably more attention to the issue of armed drones than in previous years. Sixteen countries raised drones in their statements (some multiple times), compared to seven in 2017. A joint civil society statement on drones to First Committee also saw a significantly greater number of endorsements from organisations in more countries than in past, with 54 organisations from 20 countries signing on. No resolutions mentioning drones were tabled this year.
The countries that highlighted armed drones in their statements to the debates were: Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Portugal, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago. Several of these states had not referred to drones in their statements to First Committee before (Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago).
An international initiative, led by the United States, to develop stand-alone politically binding standards on the export of armed drones is currently ongoing, and was referenced by the Netherlands and Ireland in their statements. Ireland also noted that drones are under discussion within the context of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It highlighted the ongoing efforts of states, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and civil society to promote continued international discussions on drones and their use.
A 24 October side event hosted by Germany and the Netherlands, with UNIDIR, the Stimson Center, and PAX, considered the expanding development, transfer and use of drones. Rachel Stohl from the Stimson Center emphasised that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) provides a legal framework for drones transfers (which civil society organisations also emphasised in their joint First Committee statement). Germany, meanwhile, noted that the process of developing a policy approach to drones might have similarities to developing initiatives on autonomous weapons and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Many statements situated drones in the context of the need to address the ethical, legal, and other challenges of various emerging technologies and concerns, such as autonomous weapons, cyber, and outer space. Several also highlighted the continued need for drones to be used in accordance with the law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law. Some countries highlighted different aspects of the harm to communities and humanitarian impacts caused by the use of drones, including loss of life and psychological damage. These aspects were also emphasised by civil society. A couple of states raised the threats posed by non-state armed groups acquiring drones. (For a full breakdown of references each week see summaries above.)
To respond to the issues raised by armed drones and their use in particular, several states called for regulations that specifically addressed drones, or international discussions that resulted in additional common understandings. Mexico highlighted the general importance of open, transparent, inclusive discussions on the limits of the use of force, which should result in the regulation of armed drones. In addition, export control standards and the need for transparency and accountability were raised. Civil society in their statement emphasised that states must also move beyond issues of trade to actively decide what role—if any—drone technologies should play in the use of force, and articulate what the specific limits and standards for their use are. The statement called for a progressive, inclusive, international process to be developed on this issue—and welcomed the UN Secretary-General’s recent commitment in his Agenda for Disarmament that UN institutions would support states to undertake such a process.