Drone U Podcast: Drones, the Future of War, and the Law

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 28 2013 1:48 PM

Drone U Podcast: Drones, the Future of War, and the Law

Every Wednesday on Future Tense, we will highlight a talk from a leading thinker from Drone U speaking on the topic of what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.) 

This week Drone U makes its first foray into what drones will mean for the future of warfare. Amnesty International advocacy adviser Naureen Shah starts by putting us in the shoes of people for whom American military drones are a regular part of life. "You're probably not afraid of being killed by a drone, but what if you were?” Naureen asks. “What if you lived in a country like Yemen or Pakistan where the U.S. was not so secretly engaged in a drone campaign … and was keeping drones overhead with that constant buzz for days at a time?"

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Another main question is whether armed drones are killing militants or civilians. Naureen notes that we lack good data on civilian casualties. Estimates range between Obama administration claims of no civilians killed, while other reports put the numbers closer to 1,000 since drone strikes began in Pakistan a decade ago. 

Defense and intelligence leaders have referred to drones as the most precise weapon in the American arsenal. They can hover overhead for hours longer than a human pilot, and as their sensors develop, they will be able to see details that are difficult to obtain from other systems.

Although drone technology may be evolving rapidly, Naureen notes that how it is applied needs to be evaluated in light of existing law. Under international humanitarian law during armed conflict, force can be used against the armed forces of an enemy, military objectives, or civilians directly participating in hostilities. Outside of armed conflict, human rights law applies, and intentional use of force can only be used where strictly necessary to prevent an imminent threat to life.

Is the U.S. conducting drone strikes as part of an armed conflict? The U.S. says it is in a global war, so the U.S. could carry out killings anywhere in the world. According to this logic, if you are in a country that has members of al-Qaida or an al-Qaida offshoot, then you are sitting on a global battlefield and you might be considered collateral damage. Naureen argues that whatever the advances of drone technology, the U.S. should be responding to reports of potentially unlawful killings rather than simply saying that they don't exist.

Join us on Sept. 4 for the next episode from Drone U featuring Christopher Tuckwood, executive director of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention. He will be speaking about how drones might be used to protect human rights.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Timothy Reuter is co-creator of Drone U and the founder of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. He also works on issues of international development.

Nabiha Syed is a media lawyer in New York and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project.  She is the co-founder of DroneU.