On Tuesday, United States President Barak Obama issued a new policy on the sale of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and drones. Although the policy is couched in terms of human rights and international law, its likely purpose is to pave the way for greater sales of American-made drones to United States allies.
United States policy on both the domestic and international use of drones has sparked intense debate. The use of drones at the domestic and commercial level has raised concerns about privacy and from a more technical perspective, about regulation of US air space. In the international arena, drone use by the United States military has been criticized for terrorizing civilians, causing unacceptably high civilian fatalities, creating more extremists than are killed with drones, and undermining global security. However, the United States has used drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen since 2001 and views drones as an important tool in its fight against terrorism.
When the United States had a relative monopoly on UAV technology it quietly deployed drones without much concern over the lack of laws or international agreements governing their use. But as drone technology has spread, the United States has become more outspoken on the need to establish rules governing drone deployment. In a February 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama pledged to ensure that drone use is lawful, more transparent, and accountable to the American public and Congress. In May of the same year, the President outlined stricter guidelines for the use of drones in a speech on counterterrorism, specifying that drones should be used only against targets that pose a continuing and imminent threat to the United States, and only in cases where avoiding harm to civilians is nearly certain. The latest policy, announced on Tuesday, places the sale of American drones under Department of Defense Technology Security and Foreign Disclosures oversight, and specifies that assurances must be made before export, that American-made drones will not be used to conduct unlawful surveillance, in breach of international law, against domestic populations, or by improperly trained personnel.
While the new policy references international humanitarian and human rights law, its intention is to create a framework within which American-made drones can be sold to foreign governments. Currently, the United States has sold armed drones only to Britain, and has sold unarmed drones to several other NATO allies. However, the drone industry is a profitable business, and the United States has been under pressure from domestic defense and weapons manufacturers to permit the wider export of armed and unarmed drones so that American companies do not lose profits to Israeli and Chinese firms. While the new United States guidelines governing the sale of UAEs place restrictions on the end use of these materials, the ability to enforce these restrictions is dubious. In a VICE article, Stimson Center senior associate, Rachel Stohl, highlighted the fact that the US export policy places stricter guidelines on recipient countries than are currently practiced by the United States, and that countries are likely to renege on any commitments made regarding the end-use of UAVs. Peter W. Singer, an expert on robotic weaponry at the New America Foundation is quoted by the New York Times as stating that, “Whether it’s an F-16, an armed drone or a billy club, once you sell it to another country, you lose control over how it’s used,” and that drones exported to other countries are likely to be used for questionable purposes.
Now that China (notorious for unsavory arms sales) possesses UAV technology, the proliferation of UAVs may seem like a foregone conclusion, and defense contractors may view US export restrictions as tedious constraints that surrender potential sales to foreign competitors. However, allowing the international sale of armed and unarmed drones under the false pretense that the United States will be able to control the end use of these materials is naïve or misleading. Given the questionably legal nature of the United States drone use, can we expect that US allies will hold themselves to a higher standard?