The Current

Canada could 'draw the line' on the use of killer drones in warfare, says disarmament expert

Wim Zwijnenburg, an expert on humanitarian disarmament, discusses how drones are reshaping the landscape of war.

Killer drones are letting countries wage war without any reason to seek peace: expert

A Heron drone at an army air base in Palmachim, Israel. The Canadian Department of National Defence is in talks to buy the Heron and MQ-9 models. (Dan Balilty/The Associated Press)
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Middle powers like Canada could lead the debate on how and where drones should be used in war to ensure other states "don't … use [drones] for illegal targeted killing campaigns," according to a disarmament expert.

"States like Canada and the Netherlands could come out and say: 'OK, these are military drones, this is why we want to use them, this is the added value they bring for us, for our troops — but this is also where we draw the line," said Wim Zwijnenburg, a humanitarian disarmament project leader at PAX, a Dutch peace organization.

The use of drones in warfare has been linked to civilian deaths, prompting questions about oversight and control. Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump said the country would no longer report civilian deaths in drone strikes outside active war zones.

In the next ten years, it is estimated that more than 80,000 surveillance drones and almost 2,000 attack drones will be purchased globally, according to analysts at Jane's Information Group, a British publishing company and military specialists.

The Canadian Forces has been working to identify and buy a fleet of UAVs since the early 2000s. The Department of National Defence is in talks with two manufacturers about acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles — the Heron and MQ-9.

"States don't want to have boots on the ground," Zwijnenburg said, adding that the reduced risks mean states can go to war without any incentive to broker peace.

Drones are playing a role in the conflict in Libya, Wim Zwijnenburg said. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

For instance, in Libya where the official government — backed by the United Nations, Turkey and Qatar — is in conflict with the Libyan National Army, supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and Russia, both sides are using drones supplied by allies, Zwijnenburg told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

The U.S. also flies drones through Libyan airspace as they fight ISIS militants, he said.

"The UAE doesn't necessarily want to send soldiers to fight that war. Turkey doesn't want to send its soldiers to fight a war. And the U.S. doesn't want to get body bags back," he said.

"So instead, drones have become a replacement to show that they're still engaged but not willing to take any risk."

Zwijnenburg called it one of the "deadly dynamics" of drone warfare, causing conflicts to drag on.

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over southern Afghanistan in 2010. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Canada can lead to 'better-informed decisions'

Drones do come with some benefits, in particular through their use in reconnaissance and "situational awareness on the battlefield," Zwijnenburg said. 

"You can make better-informed decisions and prevent civilian casualties," he said.

However, he pointed out that this isn't always how drones are being deployed.

It's a sort of disturbing trend where we can see everything, but we fail to act on what we see.- Wim Zwijnenburg

"They have been used a lot outside regular battlefields, in secret ... counterterrorist operations, and there have been also a lot of civilian casualties," he said. 

In September, at least 30 civilians were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. U.S. security officials said the strike was intended to destroy a hideout used by Islamic State fighters.

He thinks these instances could increase in the future, predicting that war will move away from "state-against-state warfare," and become battles between nations and armed groups, and counterterrorism operations. 

A trend is also emerging where drones are being used for surveillance and capturing footage of civilian suffering, but no action is taken, he said.

"It's a sort of disturbing trend where we can see everything, but we fail to act on what we see."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Peter Mitton.

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