The Humanitarian Impact of Drones

Last weekend I attended the Drone Summit in Washington DC organized by CODEPINK, Repreive and the Center for Constitutional Rights and chaired by CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, who launched her new book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

In a presentation to the Summit, Chris Woods the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed that the drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have resulted in at least 831 civilian deaths, including 230 children.

“It’s time for the American public to know the true extent—and consequences—of the killing and spying being done in our name,” said Benjamin, who, the day after the Summit, interrupted a speech on drones by White House Counterterrorism Advisor, John Brennen, at the Wilson Center.

“I speak out on behalf of those innocent victims,” shouted Benjamin, before being carried out of the room by a federal agent. “They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan. How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed?”

Participants of the Summit launched a new website — — which will form the nexus of an emerging campaign to monitor drone use, raising awareness of the humanitarian and human rights concerns.

Like landmines and cluster munitions, which this blog usually focuses on, drones increase the physical and psychological distance between combatants and those they target. “Killing by remote control,” Benjamin calls it. This makes it difficult for users of drones to follow the humanitarian norm of discrimination in military targeting. Thousands of miles away, a drone operator knows little to nothing about the local context, the people s/he kills and maims or the impact it will have on a community.  

Particularly disturbing is the CIA effort to expand drone use to “signature strikes” — a euphemism for assasination based on profiling — in which, according to the Washington Post, people are targeted for their “patterns of suspicious behavior” even when the US government “does not know the identities of those who could be killed.”

Selecting people for death based on behavior patterns is only a slightly more sophisticated version of what a mine does, when it kills or maims anyone who transits through an area deemed ‘off-limits’ by a military group. The victim of a mine is targeted for punishment not after a lengthy and judicious review of the person’s culpability, but simply because an armed group believes that moving into that specific area constitutes sufficient suspicion of malintent.

“Signature strikes” also open the way to even more unsettling trends toward automation and autonomy in military robots like drones. By creating a precedent that the US can assassinate people based on a profile of behavior, it is only a small step to the automation of target selection. This technology, which already exists, turns drones, underwater robotic torpedoes and military ground robots into mobile, digital mines. Raising awareness of such developments in the weapons industry, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) called on the Drone Summit participants to campaign for an international treaty governing the use of armed robots.

For a good write-up of the weekend’s events, read this blog post from ICRAC member Lucy Suchman.

~ by Matthew Bolton on 7 May 2012.

5 Responses to “The Humanitarian Impact of Drones”

  1. […] For further information on the humanitarian impact of drones, see my earlier post. […]

  2. […] further information on the humanitarian impact of drones, click here. For more details on efforts to control robotic and remotely-controlled weapons more broadly, click […]

  3. […] For an earlier blog post on the the humanitarian impact of drone strikes, click here. Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  4. […] Their editorial comes just days after reports from three influential law schools — Columbia, NYU and Stanford – raised serious reservations about the civilian impact of drone strikes. (For an earlier blog posting on the humanitarian impact of drones, click here). […]

  5. […] NYU and Stanford — raised serious reservations about the civilian impact of drone strikes. (For an earlier blog posting on the humanitarian impact of drones, click here). Moreover, the history of landmines (whether victim- or command-detonated) should give us pause […]

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