November 10, 2014

University of Birmingham Report on Drones

By Matthew Seeley

The University of Birmingham Policy Commission recently released a report entitled “The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK.”  The policy commission is chaired by Sir David Omand, former director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), one of the three UK intelligence agencies.  The report covers a range of drone technology issues, including a section on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).     

The University of Birmingham Policy Commission believe that LAWS will be unable, for the foreseeable future, to be programmed to be in compliance with international humanitarian law, specifically the concepts of distinction, proportionality, and precaution in attack.  They also cite a danger that LAWS “will face unanticipated situations and may act in an unintended fashion.”  Additionally, they cite the Martens Clause as a rationale for banning LAWS.  The authors of the report also bring up the accountability argument against LAWS, arguing that in the absence of human control for a weapon system it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold a party accountable if the use of LAWS led to war crimes.  Lastly, the policy commission argues that LAWS are capable of carrying out complicated tasks assigned to them, but will be unable to perform the complex decision-making needed to take a human out of the loop. 

The report also analyzes the arguments made by advocates of LAWS, including that LAWS may have the potential to be programmed to abide by international humanitarian law better than humans, be faster in response, and reduce collateral damage.

The policy commission ultimately expresses doubts about LAWS as a component of ground operations that can be consistent and effective. Specifically, they cite concerns regarding exercising distinction between civilians and combatants, proportionality in the use of force, and proper precaution in the attack that is necessary to comply with international humanitarian law.  They acknowledge that LAWS offer unparalleled opportunities for gaining aerial dominance and that these and other technological advantages may encourage governments to pursue the development of LAWS, thus making an international ban difficult.  In concluding their findings, the commission encourages “the UK government to take a leading role in the CCW discussions in Geneva … to help secure a new and widely endorsed international normative framework.”

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