Towards a global regime on drones

As this regime is put into place, India’s voice should be a determining one, not one that is marginal and out there in the wilderness


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A global regime to manage the use of drones is slowly being put into place. The US, along with 40 other states, issued a declaration a couple of weeks ago outlining the principles which in their view should govern the export and use of armed drones to ensure they do not cause instability or help terrorism and organized crime. This declaration to establish a set of standards for the use and sale of armed and unarmed drones has set the stage for a meeting next year to hammer out details. While many of the allies of the US, such as Britain, Germany and Australia, signed the declaration, other states, such as France, Russia, Brazil and China, did not. This makes it certain that next year’s meeting will find it very difficult to achieve a consensus which will be needed to set up a global regime.

The declaration, named the “Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)”, recognizes that misuse of armed or strike-enabled drones “could fuel conflict and instability and facilitate terrorism and organized crime” and therefore “the international community must take appropriate transparency measures to ensure responsible export and subsequent use”. But it adds that such concerns shouldn’t be seen as undermining a state’s “legitimate interest” to produce, export or acquire such systems, thereby trying to strike a balance between global good and national interest. The declaration also underlines that international laws on armed conflict and human rights should apply to the use of armed drones, and exports should be consistent with existing multilateral export control and non-proliferation regimes.

The impact of this declaration is difficult to assess at this point, especially as two of the largest producers and exporters of drones, Israel and China, have not signed on to this declaration. The declaration comes at a time when it has been assessed that the drone market outside the US is likely to grow, annually, from $1.08 billion in 2015 to $1.98 billion by 2021.

While Washington is claiming that the idea behind the declaration is to ensure that drones are for the first time subject to international law and stress the need for transparency about exports, it is clear that not everyone agrees with the American approach. Critics have complained that while the intent behind the declaration might be laudable, it doesn’t go far enough as the standards in the joint declaration are lower than those that the US maintains for its own exports and there is little incentive for countries to strive for higher standards.

The Barack Obama administration had come to office highly critical of the use of drones in various conflicts but soon found it to be a rather useful tool in fighting wars which the American public was getting disenchanted with. America’s drone programme is today central to the country’s war-fighting capability and its use is only likely to increase in the future. Last year, the US state department formulated an export control policy governing the commercial sale of armed drones. Yet, the US continues to use drones in a secretive manner and has been blamed for underestimating civilian deaths from their use. It has been gradually expanding the use of drones by regularly using them to attack the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. There are also reports that the US military is planning to build a $100 million drone base in the south-western African state of Niger.

Much like other global regimes, Washington has once again set the ball rolling in trying to define the parameters of the new frontier in drone technology. The US is hoping to set the rules for using this technology and to influence the behaviour of other states.

But these are still early days as important actors like China, Russia and India are yet to concede to these new rules. At a time when India is seriously looking at expanding the use of drones in its military strategy, and when its negotiations with the US to buy 22 Predator Guardian drones are at an advanced stage, serious thought needs to be given in New Delhi on what role it wants to play in the emerging regime to manage the use and export of drones. Though India too has not signed the US-led declaration, there is little thinking on how New Delhi wants to proceed with this technology at the global level.

While Indian Armed Forces are currently operating Israeli-made Searcher Mark I, Searcher Mark II, Heron and Herop UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the Indian-made Nishant UAV, they are likely to procure more than 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years for about $3 billion.

Given the complex security challenges that India faces, the role of UAVs in providing critical intelligence will be a key enabler not only in fighting wars effectively but also in deterring cross-border terrorist attacks. Unlike in the past, as a global regime on drones is put in place, India’s voice should be a determining one, not one that is marginal and out there in the wilderness. New Delhi should be engaging with other like-minded countries to come up with its own principles to guide the emerging global order on drones and their use.

The debate has only just begun and India should be at the front and centre of this discussion so that its own interests do not get marginalized as a new regime on the use of drones is put in place.

Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a professor of international relations at King’s College London.

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