Armed Drones Part Two: The ethical issues


MQ-9 Reaper drone. Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

MQ-9 Reaper drone. Photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

by Emma Fieldhouse, a graduate student in Public Ethics at St. Paul’s University, Ottawa and a Progressive Public Policy Intern at the Rideau Institute. 

This commentary focuses on the ethical issues that arise with the use of armed drones. Please see Part One for more information on the legal issues and on efforts from within the Canadian military to acquire armed drones.

Although the Royal Canadian Air Force has said that armed drone capabilities would only be used to support ground troops, there are concerns about mission creep. Once the capacity to strike is acquired, it is likely it will be used, and the use of weaponized drones has significant ethical implications.

One argument in favour of arming drones has been that drone strikes can be targeted more precisely than conventional bombing, and are thus able to significantly reduce the amount of collateral damage. Supporters use this as evidence that drones are the more ethical choice.

However, the high number of civilian casualties incurred in many drone strikes demonstrates that drone-targeting is not as precise as officials often claim. A 2009 New York Times article reported that 700 civilians were killed during attacks on 14 intended targets.

In 2014 the human rights organization Reprieve determined that

even when operators target specific individuals… they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people…

The U.S. has further blurred the issue by defining ‘militant’ to include all military-age males in the area, whether or not there is any evidence of them being involved in hostile activity. All of these factors, plus the high level of secrecy around the American drone program, make it very difficult for analysts to independently verify the accuracy of the strikes and their impact on civilian populations, or determine how often targets are missed.

The strategic value of drones is thus unproven, because the high number of civilian deaths in drone strikes may have fueled anti-American sentiments  and sympathy for the insurgent groups in the affected areas.

In Just War Theory, one of the most common philosophical theories dealing with the ethics of the conduct of war, there are certain criteria for moral conduct within a conflict known as jus in bello. In this framework an attack is ethical if it is directed at legitimate military targets, will result in a distinct military advantage, and if any harm done to civilians is proportional and not excessive.

Legitimate military objectives are also defined in Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions. Article 52 says:

Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

Ethicists have therefore asked whether we should consider drone operation facilities to be legitimate military targets. Using current definitions, the answer would be yes: they are military installations that are actively controlling bombing, and halting their ability to attack would be of military advantage to the opposing forces.

The situation becomes more complex when drone operators are no longer located in the combat zone itself. For example, if armed drones in Iraq were being controlled from North America, should opposing forces be able to retaliate against those drone facilities? This is an ethical question that many philosophers are grappling with, and it is issues like these that make the ethical use of armed drones problematic.

Although one would expect a Canadian weaponized drone program to look a lot different than the covert CIA program, there are still many important ethical questions which need to be answered before any decisions are made about whether Canada should acquire an armed drone capacity.



Tags: Armed drones, Article 52, Canadian defence policy, Canadian Forces, Canadian military spending,, Defence lobby, Defence policy, Defence spending, Department of National Defence, Drones, Ethics, Geneva Conventions, jus in bello, Just War Theory, Michael Byers, Military procurement, Military spending, pre-emptive self-defence, Rideau Insitute, Royal Canadian Air Force, Self-defence, surveillance drones, targeted killings