Article for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies on armed drones
By Elizabeth Minor
In latest issue of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies out today, Alex Holder and Michael Mair from the University of Liverpool co-published an article with Article 36’s Elizabeth Minor on ‘Targeting Legality: The Armed Drone as a Socio-technical and Socio-Legal System.’
Articulating some of the shared concerns about the use of armed drones and the legal frameworks which have been built up around them, this article is a product of our ongoing collaboration with two sociologists at the University of Liverpool. We came together as a result of a shared interest in exploring ‘actually existing’ practice around the use of armed drones, more specifically the situated practices of legal reasoning engaged in by military personnel to justify drone strikes in theatre – an ‘ethnomethodological’ orientation predicated on studying practical methods of action and reasoning in combat settings. Together we are seeking to determine how military personnel work together as part of drone operations to frame and organise their actions in practice with respect to a range of legal and quasi-legal frameworks. By analysing how armed drone strikes are actually conducted with a focus on targeting practices and legal reasoning within them, the goal is to open up their practical and practiced grounds.
If, as we shall argue, particular ways of interpreting legal frameworks and obligations are built into and put to work in conjunction with the socio-technical arrangements of the drone and the calculative reasoning it embodies, that means we have to treat the socio-legal as interwoven with the socio-technical rather than externally regulating it. Once we clarify what we are dealing with when we engage with the use of armed drones, i.e. a socio-technical assembly that makes it possible to produce ‘legal’ airstrikes in ways that are tailored to the individuated circumstances of particular missions while diffusing accountability across its distributed operational architectures, we suggest the challenge the drone poses is revealed to be primarily political not legal in character.
While we draw widely on existing literature in arguing this, we also refocus that literature in doing so. Our view that an interrogation of the socio-technical and socio-legal system of the armed drone should be the starting point for any analytical engagement with its use commends itself in two key respects. First, it provides a clear basis for collaboration across a range of approaches, collaborations necessary to adequately make sense of the ramifying complexities of contemporary drone operations. Second, it helps support demands for restrictions on those operations at the political level by making the socio-technical and socio-legal machineries of drone warfare visible and accountable. In order to make this case, we begin our discussion with an examination of the armed drone’s growing use.
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Photo: People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by a drone air strike near the northern city of Marib, Yemen November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Owidha