Human rights implications of the usage of drones and unmanned robots in warfare

In recent years, the use of drones and other unmanned robots in warfare and other situations of violence has increased exponentially, and States continue to invest significantly into increasing the operational autonomy of such systems. The present study provides an overview of the current and likely future use of such systems and examines the relevant legal implications under human rights law, international humanitarian law and the UN Charter. The study concludes that the present sense of uncertainty as to the applicable legal standards, the rapid development and proliferation of drone and robotic technology, and the perceived lack of transparency and accountability of current policies have the potential of polarizing the international community, undermining the rule of law and, ultimately, of destabilizing the international security environment as a whole. Accordingly, the study develops the following policy recommendations for European foreign policy:

1. First, the EU should make the promotion of the rule of law in relation to the development, proliferation and use of unmanned weapons systems a declared priority of European foreign policy.

2. In parallel, the EU should launch a broad inter-governmental policy dialogue aiming to achieve international consensus: (a) on the legal standards governing the use of currently operational unmanned weapon systems, and (b) on the legal constraints and/or ethical reservations which may apply with regard to the future development, proliferation and use of increasingly autonomous weapon systems.

3. Based on the resulting international consensus, the EU should work towards the adoption of a binding international agreement, or a non-binding code of conduct, aiming to restrict the development, proliferation or use of certain unmanned weapon systems in line with the legal consensus achieved.

Read the full report by Dr. Nils Melzer for European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies (DROI) here.