Speaker Series- Drone Wars UK

EPJC Speaker Series Report

Chris Cole: The Economic & Human Cost of Drone Wars

The latest EPJC talk as part of the Edinburgh World Justice Festival 19 October was very timely.  Chris Cole, Coordinator of Drone Wars UK and Convenor of the Drones Campaign Network, spoke on the operational use of drones for remote warfare, the costs, and the legal and ethical issues surrounding their use. A few days later Amnesty International and Human Rights watch called for those responsible for the killings of civilians in Drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen to be tried for war crimes. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/22/amnesty-us-officials-war-crimes-drones . Cole’s talk incorporated two videos, one from the US Air Force defending the use of drones and one from Afghanistan on the impact of Drones on Afghan communities.

Chris began with an overview of what drones are and their operational use for the conduct of remote warfare. The term ‘drone’ covers a huge variety of aircraft but refers to any aircraft that is unmanned and controlled remotely. Broadly they fall into two categories; surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence drones and drones that carry out the above activities and are armed.

Drones are widely hailed as the future of airpower and over the last four years there has been a large increase in the use of drones. Cole outlined the complex factors that have resulted in this shift. Advances in technology, specifically communications and satellites; strategic advantages as drones can remain in the air much longer than manned aircraft and are not constrained by human fatigue; financial reasons: drones are much cheaper to purchase than piloted aircraft; and finally political motivations as drones avoid putting a side’s own soldiers at risk.

Six different types of drones are already used by the British military. Three armed drones are in use: the Hermes 450, rented from the Israeli Defence Force, the Watchkeeper, and the MQ-9 Reaper which is physically in Afghanistan and commanded by both US and UK pilots now based at Waddington Air Base.

The fact that drone video feeds are unencrypted was raised by an audience member who pointed out the security concerns that might result from such a breech. Cole explained that while the video feeds can be hacked, control of a drone itself has only been achieved once by a team at the University of Texas as part of a competition.

The audience then watched a documentary clip on America’s Creech Air Base featuring interviews with drone pilots. Due to the secrecy surrounding the drones programme this film offered a unique insight into how they are operated and the perceptions of those who operate them. The interviewees explained that drones act as ‘eyes in the sky’ and improve the security for ground troops. The pilots, though based in the US, emphasised their involvement in the conflict despite their distance from the combat zone. The juxtaposition between the violence of combat that constitutes their working day and the suburban home life they return to at the end of the day was highlighted. The pilots denied the possibility of fatal mistakes.

Ethical and human implications of drone use.

Cole suggested that drones make war easier by enabling ‘risk free’ attacks and thus reducing possible public criticism associated with the death of own forces, by engendering a ‘playstation mentality’ with the threshold for violence lowered as flesh and blood are replaced by pixels, and by expanding the battle space. The high level of faith in the accuracy of cameras/weapons results in forces being prepared to attack in contexts that would previously be deemed unacceptable. But despite this perception of certainty it is impossible to guarantee a pinpoint accurate air strike. One US drone strike in Afghanistan resulted in twenty-three civilians being killed.

Drones are changing and eroding the laws of war. The example of Pakistan was given where the US is not at war and therefore constrained by Human Rights Law. Under Human Rights Law, use of force is permitted when there is an immediate, imminent threat to human life. This cannot apply to the hundreds of US drone strikes that have taken place in Pakistan. The requirement of International Humanitarian Law for differentiation between combatants and non-combatants is also undermined by drone usage as identifying and mitigating ‘suspicious behaviour’ as defining suspicious behaviour is challenged by cultural differences. Cole gave examples of weddings which were targeted.

The talk finished with a video http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog/2013/01/afghan-peace-volunteer-says-drones-bury-beautiful-lives/ which allowed the audience to hear directly from victims of drone strikes. Raz Muhammod, a member of the from the Afghan Peace Volunteers, http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog/ spoke about his experience of drones and  emphasised the loss of humanity that he felt characterised the use of drones.

An Audience members asked: How can a drone pilot tell the difference between a group of insurgents and, for example, a birthday party? Who creates the criteria that defines a ‘bad guy’?

Cole: There is no way to find out what the criteria are. Drone Wars UK is trying to get the films of attacks released to better understand the criteria used when deciding whether to fire. Civilians on the ground don’t know what behaviour leads to drone strikes so can’t avoid behaviour that might be mistaken as suspicious.

Q: How long do you think it will be before drones are used to police UK citizens?

Cole: Currently 200 UK institutions have authority to operate drones including the Police and private companies. There are strict rules surrounding their usage, however these regulations are almost impossible to enforce. There is potential for them to be used positively, for example in search and rescue contexts but use by private companies challenges our notions of civil liberty and privacy.

Q: How closely are drones linked to the privatisation of the defence and security industry?

Cole: There is very little information about the manufacture of drones as it is done by private companies and therefore greatly aids military secrecy.

Q: How can awareness of this issue be increased?

Cole: Amnesty International and Reprive have both done work on this cause however their focus is on the human rights implications of drones and less so on the peace and security argument. I think the issue of drones must be approached from both perspectives.

Q: What can be done?

Cole: Political pressure, awareness raising, we can encourage our MPs to join the all party parliamentary group on Drones. An audience member suggested Edinburgh people write to Sheila Gilmour whose position we should challenge.


This talk was co-sponsored by Edinburgh CND, Edinburgh Stop the War, Scottish WILPF, Edinburgh CAAT and Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre.

Reported by Amy Johnson


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