Think before you act: Don’t arm the Dutch Reaper drone

Image: Air National Guard via Wikimedia Commons

January 23, 2020

The assassination of Iranian General Suleimani by an American Reaper drone has led to rising tensions in the Middle East. The same weekend in Libya, a rocket fired by an Emirati drone killed dozens of government recruits.

These type of attacks are increasing worldwide and raise questions about how drones make the use of violence easier. The Netherlands will soon have MQ-9 Reapers, which will not be armed but could be in the future. This is an excellent moment for the Netherlands to argue for clear limits on the use and export of drones. Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader in the Humanitarian Disarmament department at PAX, set forth this argument in the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw.

Civilian Casualties
The Reaper drone brings up associations with the American drone war in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. The US started this war in 2002 in Yemen and has continued it in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya to this day. Without any form of legal liability, drones continue to fire rockets at suspected terrorists, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. With this campaign, the United States is stretching international law to legitimize their policies, without being transparent about why people are targeted and without compensating civilian casualties. In these countries there is growing opposition to these flying execution machines. At the same time, dozens of countries that have military drones are likely to follow the American example.

Drones have excellent cameras and sensors and can therefore see more than was previously available. This can lead to better decision making and more precise targeting. In combination with an increasingly longer flight time, this also leads to more options for attacks. Case in point was the Iranian drone attacks on Saudi Arabia last year.

Restraint is needed
The law of war offers sufficient clarity about the use of deadly violence in regular war situations. But countries with armed drones (such as the US, Israel, Great Britain and France) are prepared to carry out attacks outside of regular conflicts, operations they would not have carried out by other means. None of these countries is willing to indicate boundaries when it comes to the armed deployment of drones in counter-terrorism operations. Hence, restraint is necessary. The possible arming of Dutch Reaper drones means that the Netherlands must come up with a clear and robust position that prevents the undermining of international law.

Legal framework on and outside the battlefield
This should include a clear legal framework on the deployment of force, both on and outside the battlefield. The latter is crucial because current conflicts take place in diffuse circumstances, often against armed groups and not against a traditional army. In addition, it is also necessary for the Netherlands to clarify how unrestrained warfare is integrated into the armed forces, because drones and robots will play a greater role in military operations in the future. That is why a vision of the many challenges that remote war poses is necessary in order to prevent the escalation of violence.

The Netherlands has an obligation to its soldiers, politicians, and especially the victims of armed drones to make sure violence is guided by clear boundaries. PAX insists on creating these frameworks before proceeding to arm its Reaper drones. Two reports on drones (the Advisory Committee on International Law Issues from 2013 and the Supervisory Committee on Intelligence and Security Services from 2016) were a good start. It is now up to the government to determine a strong position. A global Wild West with drones will turn against us sooner rather than later.

This piece appeared on January 10 as an opinion piece in the newspaper Trouw.

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