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Drone ethics

Heiner Kiesel / gb
May 18, 2013

Unmanned weapons systems are fast becoming an indispensable aspect of modern warfare. But their use raises ethical questions which Germany has just begun to address.

The drone 'Euro Hawk' stands on the airfield of the reconnaissance squadron 51 'Immelmann' in Jagel, Germany,. EPA/ANGELIKA WARMUTH
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The growing use of so-called remote-controlled drones for surveillance and active warfare has raised a number of ethical questions, prompting a debate between supporters and opponents of the technology in Germany.

A recent discussion saw an international law expert, two foreign policy experts and human rights activists sitting together around a table to mull over possible future military scenarios and their ramifications.

War strategists and foreign policy experts view drone technology as an essential tool in the arsenal of military hardware. They argue that it improves the precision of surveillance in otherwise hard-to-reach terrain or reduces the risk of injury or death for troops on the battlefield.

Opponents, however, see a danger in drones of dehumanizing warfare by raising the threshold of acceptance for collateral damage; that is, of people and property not necessarily targeted by an attack.

Questionable legitimacy

The debate in Germany is heating up after Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced and then rescinded – at least for now – his decision to purchase the technology from the United States.

Peter Rudolf, DW/Heiner Kiesel
Rudolf thinks the widespread use of drones by the US is questionableImage: DW/H. Kiesel

The US has been widely and successfully using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to hunt down suspected terrorists and their hideouts. But many in Germany and Europe are dismayed about this practice.

"Essentially, not only individuals but whole groups of people that fit into a certain behavioral pattern are being killed," argues Peter Rudolf from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Rudolf said the technology was being used under the pretense of fighting terrorism, but that such vagaries would be hard to defend in Germany. The widespread use of unmanned weapons systems by the US is questionable, both ethically and in terms of international law, he maintains.

"When such weapons are employed over the territory of another country, for self-defense, then an armed attack from there must be imminent," said Andreas Zimmermann, a professor of international law at the University of Potsdam in Germany. Even if it is a non-state aggression, say, by a terrorist group, then some present danger of an attack must exist, he argued. But this is not the case, says Zimmermann, which is why he considers the current tactics of the US military to be highly questionable.

For Rainer Arnold, a defense expert with the Social Democrats, "no legal clarification is needed." Legally, it makes no difference whether an attack is manned or unmanned, adding that the choice of weapons determines the outcome. With drones, he said, "you can't take them prisoner, you can only kill them."

War without risk

One important reason why political leaders like the idea of remote-controlled airplanes has to do with the disposition of the general public. No country likes to see its soldiers sent far from home on dangerous missions. However, the conflicts now and of the future, say most military strategists, will be fought far from one's own borders and a drone is the perfect solution.

Andreas Zimmermann, DW/Heiner Kiesel
Zimmermann says the use of unmanned weapons systems makes one side invulnerableImage: DW/H. Kiesel

"Drones allow their users the luxury of choosing the moment for an attack without the risk to one's own forces," emphasized Anthony Dworkin from the European Council on Foreign Relations. But this, he added, reduces the threshold for conducting a mission. "It's easier for governments and parliaments to commit to a mission, knowing that their own troops will not be at risk," he said.

Zimmermann also stressed another point. "The protective measures enshrined in international law only work because everybody knows they could also be a victim. But, if one side becomes invulnerable, then the other side will also say: I'm just going to kill everybody who comes in front of my Kalashnikov."

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