can international humanitarian law catch up with technology? · Global Voices in French

Screenshot from YouTube channel for National Bird movie trailer which tells the story of US drone experts who speak out against abuse.

Drones have revolutionized modern warfare. However, is international law sufficiently equipped to regulate the use of this rapidly evolving technology, which causes the death of civilians?

The drone, also called unmanned aircraft, began to be used for military purposes as early as the 1840s, especially for surveillance. Things changed drastically in the early 2000s when the US government started using drones with strike capability in Afghanistan. Washington’s argument was that the drone strikes represented a form of “clean warfare” because they did not engage US troops on the ground. The Obama administration effectively described them as surgical strikes, meant to minimize civilian casualties.

International law

No article of international law specifically refers to the use of drones. The main legal reference is the Geneva Convention, establishing the standards of international humanitarian law in times of war. One of the key elements of this convention is the definition of armed conflict and the protection of civilians – who are not directly engaged in acts of war, but who suffer from them. The Geneva Convention laid the foundations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. These laws strive to protect civilians, and can serve as a reference in the context of military drone attacks against civilians.

At a drone conference in Berlin hosted by the Disruption Network Lab, Global Voices spoke with Khalil Dewan, a lawyer and researcher who specializes in cases involving civilian victims of military drones. He explains :

The problem is not the absence of laws, but the very broad interpretation of pre-existing international law, which governs the use of force inside and outside conflict zones where armed drones operate.

Indeed, the laws of war, used as a pale excuse to justify drone strikes, require two countries to be officially in a state of war. However, this does not apply to places like Yemen for the United States for example. Khalil Dewan, who investigated the deaths of 14 drone victims across four different cases in Somalia, said when he spoke to Americans at AFRICOM, they denied any civilian casualties. This testifies to a policy of arrogance and impunity preventing any investigation after the strikes, concludes Khalil Dewan.

For example, the death of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011, killed in Yemen by an American drone, is a revealing case of violation of the right to a fair trial.

However, as Khalil Dewan argues, there is another major problem that many human rights organizations seem to want to avoid:

How legal and ethical is it to kill alleged combatants instead of capturing them and giving them a fair trial? In countries that are not officially at war with the United States?

As he points out, there seems to be general agreement in Western countries that extrajudicial executions are an acceptable practice, because the victims are branded “terrorists.” »

The Kill Cloud: the cloud of smoke perfect to avoid any liability

Another major challenge in assigning responsibilities is the extremely powerful data system that operates the drones, to which different countries as well as various companies are actively contributing.

This is probably what eludes people unfamiliar with drones: the unmanned flying machine is a simple vehicle with sensors, but it can be transformed into a deadly weapon with what some experts call the “Kill Cloud”. , a vast, extremely complex and rich data network to make drones autonomous and to make them strike. The Kill Cloud absorbs massive volumes of data from satellites and other monitoring devices. These data are translated and subsequently, analyzed by humans before being reinjected into the drone, which is then assigned a mission. As Lisa Ling and Cyan Westmoreland, two ex-US military and drone experts turned whistleblowers, explain in the book “Whistleblowing for Change” (which can be downloaded for free here):

[Nous devons] avoid the narrow framework that hides the distributed systems, bureaucratic institutions and cultural biases behind the intensive production of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance directing these platforms to their targets. The concept is unprecedented and its colonial reach continues to bring endless war to communities of color around the world.

The capacity of the Kill Cloud is growing exponentially and this is where responsibility can be easily blurred: different companies are providing software, images or content. Exactly as countries allied with the United States do. When a drone strikes and kills combatants, but also civilians, who is responsible and under what jurisdiction?

As Khalil Dewan explains, everyone is quick to deny any direct responsibility:

When I talk to the French soldiers, the first thing they say to me is: “We are not like the United States, we do not carry out signature strikes. Yet they help power data, analytics, and surveillance, enabling America’s Kill Cloud to work.

A new player: Turkey

If drones have revolutionized modern warfare, Turkey seems to be on the way to seriously changing the rules of the game. In 2004, Turkey started producing its own brand of military drones, the Bayraktar. They made their appearance in international conflicts in 2020, during the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for the recovery of its occupied territories [seconde guerre du Haut-Karabakh], and, more recently, when Ankara admitted having sold it to Ukraine. They were so effective in the fight against the Russian invasion that a song was composed in honor of them in Ukraine.

According to Khalil Dewan, Turkish drones operate in a totally different context:

Turkey does not have the US Kill Cloud ability. When it announced it was going to develop its own drones, it sparked strong opposition and criticism from experts in Germany. Yet they operated in Azerbaijan and Ukraine, and as far as can be determined, only on combat targets, with minimal to no civilian targets.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, the use of drones and technology is proving to be of strategic interest to all countries with large armies.

To go further on the matter, there is a video presentation by Khalil Dewan, findable below (from minute 40).

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