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Before drones sold to Jordan and UAE, safeguards needed [Commentary]

April 24, 2017 (Photo Credit: General Atomics)
Last week, a bipartisan group of congressmen sent a letter requesting the Trump administration approve sales of Reaper drones to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. If the sale goes forward, certain conditions will be necessary to ensure U.S. interests are achieved.

The Jordan sale was previously opposed by the Obama administration due in part to restrictions imposed by the Missile Technology Control Regime and its presumption of denial for sales of such systems. But members of Congress have argued for the sale under economic and political considerations, namely that selling U.S. drones to allies makes sense, as it prevents them from turning to China or other suppliers to meet their technical needs for joint operations to fight the Islamic State group.

Should these sales go through, they will represent a notable shift in the United States’ approach to drone transfers, not least because they will mark the first time armed drones are provided to the region. To date, the United States has only sold armed (or armable) drones to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. The Predator XP, a version that cannot be armed, had been sold to the UAE.

Until now, the United States has been very cautious about selling armed drones — even to close allies — in an effort to prevent widespread proliferation of the technology. The sales could challenge the process being undertaken by the United States to develop international standards for drone export and subsequent use. If the sale is perceived to violate the standards proposed by the United States, future efforts to develop global norms could be jeopardized.

More broadly, the sales would represent a significant test for the 2015 U.S. UAV export policy and specifically for its conditions for drone sales. The policy contains four principles for proper use of armed drones, but it remains unclear how these principles will be implemented and how the administration will monitor and evaluate recipient countries’ adherence to the principles.

The first principle requires that U.S. drones be used “in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” Establishing the terms of sale should go well beyond securing a pro forma commitment to abide by international humanitarian law, to which both countries are bound anyway. The United States should seek clarification of the ways in which lawful targets will be selected and distinguished from civilians and ensure that targeting rules in both planned and dynamic strikes employ all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties as legally required. The U.S. should also ensure that both countries have plans in place to investigate and transparently account for claims of civilian casualties when they happen.

The second principle requires that U.S. drones be used “in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense.” The United States should seek clarification of the legal basis for the use of drones in lethal strikes by UAE and Jordan before they are used, as well as seek assurances that the platform will be used only in the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict.

The third principle requires the end user not to “conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations.” The absence of clarifying language, however, greatly complicates the interpretation of this principle in practice. Therefore, the United States should apply the narrowest interpretation available, gaining assurances that drones will not be used in domestic operations at all. There is no conceivable, justifiable reason for either country to use drones in lethal strikes or surveillance operations within their own territory.

The fourth and final principle requires technical and doctrinal training “on the use of [drones] to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.” The United States has significant experience in operating armed drones and can impart important lessons about the best ways to minimize civilian harm through intelligence, communications and other elements of the targeting process. As a condition of these sales, training must be provided and must align with tactics and policies that reflect best practices in avoiding civilian casualties.

If the proposed sales go forward, specific safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the drones support — and do not undermine — U.S. national security interests and foreign policy objectives. 

Rachel Stohl is the director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center. From 2013 to 2014, Stohl directed the Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy, and she currently leads the center’s projects on issues pertaining to the international arms trade and the U.S. drone program. Dan Mahanty is the senior adviser for the United States at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Prior to CIVIC,  Mahanty  created and led the Office of Security and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State, overseeing the integration of human rights in U.S. arms sales and security assistance policies from 2014 to 2016.
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