Last month, Defense News broke the story of US efforts to negotiate a joint declaration for the export and subsequent use of armed, or "strike-enabled," drones. Now, a revised version of the declaration is circulating and sources report it will be launched in early October at the United Nations.
However, this new US draft, shared with me by foreign diplomats, is more problematic than the original.
While the revised version is similar in content to the original draft presented to governments last month — and contains five principles for the export and subsequent use of armed or strike-enabled unmanned aerial vehicles (a switch from the prior version's use of unmanned aerial systems) — it contains nine noticeable additions and four rewrites of existing text.
These new text additions actually weaken the existing text, inserting qualifiers and exceptions. Adding words like "relevant" and "voluntary" — and adding caveats such as "none of which should be construed to undermine the legitimate interest of any State to indigenously produce, export, or acquire such systems for legitimate purposes" and with "due regard to national security considerations" — the joint declaration has evolved into a hollow shell of what could have been a powerful tool to ensure the lawful and responsible use of armed drones.
In this way, the draft joint declaration undermines the existing system and the various international and domestic regulations that already apply to the export and use of UAVs. Indeed, the principles in the draft joint declaration are even less robust than what the administration previously established in its February 2015 US export control policy on UAVs.
Why would the United States lower the bar and propose different standards than are already outlined in the US export policy?
Thus far, seven countries are believed to have agreed to sign onto the joint declaration. Governments I have spoken with say they are under tremendous political pressure to give the Obama administration their support, even if they disagree with the language and the approach.
Critics of the joint declaration, including governments that spoke off the record, were deeply troubled by the possibility that the declaration could provide a blank check for future use and exports of drones. Some are concerned that the joint declaration serves to effectively legitimize past US drone use, claiming that such actions — many of which remain controversial — were consistent with international humanitarian and human rights law, and that future actions would follow the same principles. Indeed, "responsible use" in the declaration implicitly indicates that those signing on are conducting responsible and legal action today.
Other governments are concerned that there would be no accountability for previous US drone use, and that the declaration would allow other countries to adopt practices and indeed justifications similar to those employed by the United States. Governments could then claim that they signed onto the declaration and thus demonstrated their commitment to using drones responsibly.
In short, there is a fear that the joint declaration sanctions unilateral action against perceived threats in secret and without a declaration of war, a dangerous precedent that the United States has perpetuated.
The administration concludes the draft declaration by resolving to continue discussions on how best to ensure the responsible transfer and use of UAVs. The draft does not, however, provide any insight as to when or where these discussions will take place, or what form they will take. Nor does the administration provide details on what it hopes the discussions will lead to, or what the end result will be. In short, the joint declaration refers to a future process (which is a good thing) but without any guidance for fulfilling that objective and no incentive for governments to continue the discussion.
Simply put: If the joint declaration essentially allows governments to check the box that they have addressed global drone standards, why would they deem it necessary to pursue more standards in the future?
Although it is understandable that the Obama administration likely sees the joint declaration as a legacy issue and demonstrates a commitment to developing international standards, the draft as it is currently written does not go far enough to ensure that the administration places the drone program on firmer footing before it leaves office. Rather, the joint declaration removes any motivation for continued conversations on establishing international standards and norms for drone use and export in the future.
If done well, clear international principles can establish a framework for determining when drone use and transfer are responsible. They can provide a transparent process by which governments can be held accountable. If done poorly, however, principles can provide a free pass to governments and allow them to act with impunity. The Obama administration's commitment to developing common standards and international norms on drone use and export is commendable, but the content of the current joint declaration diminishes the potential impact of such standards.
Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something.
Rachel Stohl is the director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center, where she leads the think tank's drone project.