The Ethics of Drone Warfare
The most common use of drone technology is in the military, particularly by America. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles; they are remotely piloted flying crafts that are either controlled by a pilot on the ground or autonomously using software. Debates about drone warfare and the ethics, legalities and morality of its use by the military have risen as the technology becomes more prominent and widely used. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, the American government has issued a ‘war on terror’. Drone technology is primarily used by the military for attacks targeted at enemies as part of this ‘war on terror’. The government allocated millions of dollars for drones and other robotic weapons to use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was when the age of drone warfare and the use of military robots really began. Their usage was solidified when drones were credited with killing important terrorist leaders and there seemed to be no argument against them with such positive military feedback. The drones reduce the risk to the lives of the soldiers and are seen as effective weapons, this again solidified their military position without seemingly looking at the negatives and pitfalls of the technology. Military drones allow soldiers to be able to attack without having to be anywhere near the strike zone they have targeted. This creates a distance between the action and the humans creating it, providing minimal risk to those involved and lowering the human cost on the side of those with the drones.
Military drones allow soldiers to be able to attack without having to be anywhere near the strike zone they have targeted. This creates a distance between the action and the humans creating it, providing minimal risk to those involved and lowering the human cost on the side of those with the drones.
It also means that those who use the technology don’t have to see firsthand the violence they inflict, therefore allowing the ability to put it out of their minds. This makes the technology somewhat similar to weapons such as missiles as they can be employed from thousands of miles away. These types of weapons allow individuals to have no accountability for their actions because, usually, they are not even in the same country as the chaos they have inflicted. The impact of death can be minimised on an emotional level. Is out of sight out of mind? The main issue that brings into question the use of drones by the military is the amount of civilian deaths caused by this technology. Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claims that up to 80% of the victims of drone attacks are civilians and with these figures it would undoubtedly seem that their use isn’t worth the innocent casualties they cause. This is especially true when you consider that many of the deaths are children. The exact statistics aren’t known as different governments claim different numbers of casualties, the US have given figures that only 2% of victims were civilians. These numbers have brought about allegations of government secrecy about drone warfare.
Pakistani civilian citizens have become afraid to attend public gatherings that include many people (weddings, funerals, etc) as they are wary that they might be mistaken for terrorist gatherings. This fear is not wholly unfounded if you take into account reports that a meeting of the ‘jirga’ was the subject of a drone strike that killed 42 people with only 4 of them having terrorist ties. These types of mistakes seem easy to make when the military sends in robots to investigate possible criminals. There is no way for these drones to make a judgement call that should be made by real humans that have the capacity to make a decision about the people that they physically see. Those individuals manning the drones don’t have to take responsibility for their actions as they are not physically there to see the aftermath, if they are even controlled by humans at all.
Drones are undoubtedly controversial, but the issue has gone so far that people call attacks utilising the technology ‘war crimes’.
Amnesty International has investigated attacks by the US on Pakistan using drones. They were particularly interested in the civilian deaths caused where these people posed no harm or threat and were caught in the crossfire of targeted attacks on terrorists. This brings with it issues of legality and whether civilian deaths due to drone strikes can be seen as unlawful killings.
Amnesty International admitted that Pakistan was a place full of speculation and that it would be difficult to find the truth but that, although it was hard to determine whether people killed were militants or not, civilians who were categorically not involved in fighting were murdered. A particularly telling example from the investigation told that a 68 year old grandmother was killed in a large vacant field whilst picking vegetables. There was no indication that she was involved in any groups that would pose a threat to the US and this raises the question as to why she was murdered. Without direct response from the American government there is no way to know for sure about the reason for the attack, but it definitely brings into speculation the use of unmanned robots delivering attacks that real humans with a conscience cannot make spontaneous and immediate decisions about. When you pair this incident with others such as the death of a 14-year old boy documented in the same investigation, it does raise cause for doubt. If there is any doubt about the use of drones, this should be thoroughly investigated before they are used anymore. The safety of people is too important to leave any questions unanswered about the involvement of drones in military strikes. The reports of numerous strikes causing civilian deaths cannot be seen as collateral damage and shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
War crimes are constituted as knowingly and intentionally killing civilians and the fact that, with drones, this technology can be used to evade accountability sends a message that the future of their usage could lead to shaky ground in terms of ethics and moral obligations.
The secrecy over drones exhibited by America could cause problems as the technology becomes used on a global level; other countries are starting to add the weapon to their military arsenal. An example needs to be set so that shadowing over problems doesn’t become the precedent. Increasing transparency over the use of drones and their effects, as well as increasing accountability, is needed for the technology to be lawful, just and also to erase public doubts about whether it is okay to use them. A soldier who administers attacks on Middle Eastern countries from America could feel a reduced responsibility about the work they are doing. Drones can become similar to playing a video game about war rather than reality. Drone operators have even admitted to this fact, stating that their time in the military has been like playing the same video game over and over for the duration of their service. Their actions, however, don’t lead to ‘game over’ with nobody being the wiser, but to real deaths. A disconnect between these actions and their consequences is immeasurable when drone use is compared to a game.
Soldiers don’t see first-hand the damage their actions cause and can forget them at the end of a night; if they were face to face with their victims this would be another story. Robots don’t have a conscience, but the best thing about humans is that they do and can look at other people who live in the world with them with compassion and empathy. The fact that robots cannot be sure that the intended victim is a militant, only that they are human also causes ethical issues. There are always casualties of war, but can these mistakes be justified when knowingly sending a robot out instead of a human to attack ‘enemies’? Mistakes are easy to make with technology. Another legal point of view that can be broached with reference to drone technology is the fact that those targeted criminals are not given the chance to give themselves up. They cannot surrender to robots as there is no recognition from them and so an attack would occur regardless of any surrender that might have taken place in reaction to drone attacks. When the drones are used to target real threats that would have to be targeted regardless of the use of drones, the positives of the technology can be seen. They protect soldiers fighting for their countries from having to risk their lives in combat when they can stay a safe distance from the danger. The fact that they can hover over areas for up to 18 hours also means that those manning the drones thousands of miles away have the time to choose the best moment to fire.
This makes drones the perfect weapon for attacking terrorists, particularly in areas too dangerous to send in soldiers. This minimises casualties on the US side of operations, but this lack of risk can remove restraint. Operators can ‘clock-off’ at the end of a day, but the targeted victims are always in the crossfire.
When the drones are used to target real threats that would have to be targeted regardless of the use of drones, the positives of the technology can be seen. They protect soldiers fighting for their countries from having to risk their lives in combat when they can stay a safe distance from the danger. The fact that they can hover over areas for up to 18 hours also means that those manning the drones thousands of miles away have the time to choose the best moment to fire.
That is not to say, however, that those controlling the drones don’t have any psychological effects from manning these aircrafts.Drones have had major successes in apprehending major terrorist organisation members. A particular case that cannot be overlooked is with the death of terrorist leader Anwar al Awlaki in September 2011. Capturing Awlaki was of the utmost importance in counter-terrorism measures as he was very high on the list of most wanted in relation to terrorist organisations. The fact that drones provide greater security for America and its allies is clear, but at what cost? If reports like this were the only kind of feedback over drone technology, there wouldn’t even be a debate. The negatives, however, are inexcusable and have to be addressed.
Military drones offer real advantages in combat in the ‘War on Terror’ and have helped capture terrorist threats that they might not have been able to without the technology.
They also offer a level of safety to the military when soldiers don’t have to be anywhere near danger zones. These advantages, however, do not erase the negatives of drone warfare. Innocent civilians have been killed in drone attacks and those who operate the aircraft cannot be sure that without a doubt the targets are criminals when they are nowhere near the action. Robots cannot feel emotion or make decisions and so in some cases real people are needed to ensure that no war crimes are committed by those involved, but also to act with humanity in the way only a human can. Although drone technology has its pitfalls, this doesn’t mean that it should be shut down completely. Governments and the military need to pay closer attention and thoroughly investigate any accusations about drone attacks to ensure that their actions are ethical, moral and legal. They also need to be more forthcoming with regards to drone information with the public; this visibility will ensure that any controversies and protests can be dealt with easily.