The most hotly debated 21st century weapons – drones – have been an important means of fighting an adversary at no risk to the virtual pilots. But what are the risks?
Drones have been successful in killing key figures in extremist groups which have murdered civilians in terror attacks in Europe and the United States. But the use of drones can kill or injure innocent bystanders. And can be seen as summary executions that are against international law.
Drones are also criticised as lacking the punch of more conventional means, while other countries use planes and boots on the ground with greater effectiveness.
Talking to Chris Burns, at the European Parliament in Brussels, were Alain De Neve, Researcher at the Royal Higher Institute for Defence; Andrew Stroehlein, European spokesman for Human Rights Watch; and Roland Freudenstein, Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Martens Centre for European Studies
Chris Burns: “I’d like to start with a question for Alain – how effective are drones in fighting extremist groups, and are we safer thanks to them?”
Alain De Neve: “We don’t know how effective they are, or what are the results of this on the global strategy of the United States and other countries using drones.”
Chris Burns: “You are a military analyst but for the Belgian government, yes?”
Alain De Neve: “Yes.”
Chris Burns: “Andrew, from Human Rights Watch, how do you see this?”
Andrew Stroehlein: “The rules of war are very clear that combatants have to distinguish between enemies and civilians. In many cases drones have been able to do that, and in many cases they haven’t. You asked the question – are we safer? Well it depends on who “we” are. If “we” are a family living in Yemen who are destroyed by a stray drone strike, then “we” are not safer.
Chris Burns: “Roland, are we safer? How effective are drones?”
Roland Freudenstein: “First of all, anything you can say against drones, you can say about any modern weapon system. Now the question is have drones been effective in keeping Al Qaida on the run? Have they been effective in keeping Al Qaida from re-grouping and planning and executing large terrorist attacks in western countries? Yes they have.”
Chris Burns: “Continuing with the argument, perhaps we could ask isn’t this more precise than a bomb or a cruise missile? Perhaps drones cause less collateral damage and less civilian casualties? What do you think, Alain?”
Alain De Neve: “It’s not a perfect weapon. There can be mistakes in targeting. It is less easy to distinguish between civilians and military personnel on the ground. There is always a risk of confusion.”
Chris Burns: “So Andrew, do you think this could be a more precise weapon, or not?”
Andrew Stroehlein: “The problem comes with the legal advice that governments are taking about drones. And that’s not made public. For example in the UK’s drone strike in Syria on August 21, killing two British citizens alleged to be working with the so-called Islamic State – the legal advice which David Cameron said he had received, he will not make public. Nor will he make public the evidence on the basis of which these strikes were made, so basically he’s made himself judge, jury and executioner.”
Chris Burns: “Exactly. Aren’t these extra-judicial killings? Or is this justified because they took part in terror attacks, as the people who were killed allegedly did. Alain?”
Alain De Neve: “Drone attacks have been carried out in a very permissive environment recently.”
Chris Burns: “So you think they should be more tightly regulated, then?”
Alain De Neve: “It should be more regulated than now.:
Chris Burns: “Are we out of control here?”
Roland Freudenstein: “No, we’re not. I think there is an elaborate procedure by the US Department of Justice, to take the American example, to authorise drone strikes. It goes through several stages. There have to be decisions by civilians, by judges, that this particular strike is the only means available.”
Chris Burns: “Some people argue that instead of using these sanitized methods of warfare, you really should put boots on the ground. We should send troop in to be more effective. What do you think, Alain?”
Alain De Neve: “Drone strikes don’t prevent you having troops on the ground. Sometimes in order to target, you have to reply on troops on the ground.”
Chris Burns: “It’s air support in other words?”
Alain De Neve: :Yes.”
Chris Burns: “How do you see this Andrew? Some people say you should put boots on the ground, you shouldn’t be using these kinds of automated weapons.”
Andrew Stroehlein: “From a human rights perspective, and under international law, that’s not really the question. It’s not the type of weapon you use, it’s how you use it and whether you’re distinguishing between legitimate targets, ie enemy combatants and civilians and that is a clear distinction that has to be made no matter the weapon, no matter whether you have troops on the ground or not.”
Chris Burns: “What about trying to win hearts and minds on the ground? We’re losing hearts and minds on the ground in places. People are angry about their civilians, their families being killed in this.”
Roland Freudenstein: “Yes, well they would be even more angry about boots on the ground than they are about drones. International law was created at a time when this kind of terrorist did not exist. So I think we have to work on amending international law, and incorporating drones into a trans-national policy to fight that kind of terrorism.”
Chris Burns: “Should there be an international treaty? Perhaps even one amending the Geneva Convention?”
Andrew Stroehlein: “I think that’s a very dangerous road to go down. I mean, international law has served us well in many instances and creates clear rules that everyone understands. We’re looking at this from a very western perspective. What if Russia flies a drone over Warsaw, or let’s say London. Let’s say they fly a drone over London and kill someone they say is an enemy. What would we say? We would be outraged. The West would be rightfully, absolutely outraged, and that’s what is going on in many cases.”
Chris Burns: “What if we just stopped it? And some people would like to see that happen. What could the danger be? Should this be stopped? Well, I know what you’re going to say, Roland, but what dangers do you see if it is stopped?”
Roland Freudenstein: “We are sending men and women to far away places to fight for us. These people risk getting their legs blown off, getting traumatised for life, or losing their lives. Now I think we owe it to them to buy them the best equipment that money can buy. That’s the immediate task and this is why I don’t think that we will, or that we should, stop using drones.”
Chris Burns: “What dangers do you see, Andrew? Or do you think it would be possible to stop this?”
Andrew Stroehlein: “I don’t think my argument is to say no more drones, stop all the drones altogether. I think that’s unrealistic. But we have a problem with transparency, we do not understand and we cannot know the legal advice or the evidence because they are just simply not releasing that. So we’re left in this situation where we have to trust the president, we have to trust the prime minister to be judge, jury and executioner. And I’m not comfortable with that situation.”
Roland Freudenstein: “You know, talking about the legal procedures and transparency is fine, but when it goes into the operational knowledge about how drones are used, the is obviously a need for secrecy there. So we need to draw a fine line between these two things. And I think we are about to work this out.”
Andrew Stroehlein: “I go back again to my London argument. SO President Putin says well you have to trust me that we have evidence and I have taken legal advice on my drone strike. I will not show you the legal advice or the evidence. Will you trust President Putin on this?”
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