The use of drones as a means of warfare traces back to World War II and beyond, becoming increasingly significant in the course of the second half of the 20th century. In the last few years, the use of drones and other unmanned robots in warfare and other situations of violence has increased exponentially, and States continue to invest significantly into increasing the operational autonomy of such systems.
With the growing robotics in war are emerging new and ominous scenarios, that the defenders of human rights and the Geneva Conventions are trying to change.
Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones”, are aerial systems, usually equipped with a camera, that can be remotely controlled for short and long range military and civilian purposes and that can also be armed with missiles. We can divide them in two big categories : those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.
While current armed drones are remotely controlled from the ground, the next generation will be much more autonomous. Drones now in development can take off by themselves, fly their pre-programmed mission, return and land, all without the intervention of a human pilot. Some argue that this is merely an extension of the ‘auto-pilot’ currently in use on most aircraft, while others see the growing autonomy of armed drones as a dangerous step towards autonomous weaponry.
There are in fact a number of legal issues associated with the use of this armed drones, not least whether they are in a category “so cruel as to be beyond human tolerance” in a similar way to cluster bombs and anti-personnel landmines.
Although the legal principles resulting from these normative frameworks are universally recognized, their precise application and interpretation with regard to the use of armed drones and other robotic weapons gives rise to a number of controversies.
The question so is : are armed drones lawful and what does law say about them?
Under International Humanitarian Law – the rules of war, (i.e. the set of laws governing armed conflicts ) drones are not expressly prohibited, nor are they considered to be inherently indiscriminate or perfidious. In this respect, we can say that they are no different from weapons launched from manned aircraft such as helicopters, airplanes or other combat aircraft. It is important to underline, however, that while drones are not unlawful in themselves, their use is subject to international law.
Drones are not specifically mentioned in weapon treaties or other legal instruments of international humanitarian law. However, the use of any weapon system, including armed drones, in armed conflict situations is clearly subject to the rules of international humanitarian law. This means among other things that, when using drones, parties to a conflict must always distinguish between combatants and civilians and between military objectives and civilian objects.
Some supporters of the use of drones argue that they have made attacks more precise and that this has resulted in fewer casualties and less destruction: this is due ,under their opinion ,by their ability to loiter over a particular area together with their highly accurate sensors and cameras , that gives the ability to have increased control over when and where to strike, enabling greater accuracy and less ‘collateral damage’. On the other side, it must also be said that drone attacks have erroneously killed or injured civilians on too many occasions.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization based in London, estimates that the attacks carried out by drones between 2004 and 2013 have made between 2,500 and 3,500 deaths (including hundreds of civilians and almost 200 children) and more than 1,000 injured in Pakistan.
This is not a way to say “drones are ok, drones are not”, but to focus on their different aspects, on the good and also on the bad ones, since it is important to analyze their use at 360°, to find a good compromise to avoid unfair civilians deaths and other related matters.
From the perspective of International Humanitarian Law, any weapon that makes it possible to carry out more precise attacks, and helps avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, should be given preference over weapons that do not.
This is a good start to prevent big damages, but it must be done more.
Technology can’t be stopped, and unfortunately it growth is even more faster than the human rights legal developments, producing a higher percent of risks in the matter of human’s lives safeguard.