On Saturday March 2, the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) screened a short documentary by a Dutch team ‘Attack of the Drones’, followed by a discussion.

Drones, also called UAV (unmanned air vehicles), are aircrafts with no human pilot that are controlled by remote control of a pilot on the ground or can also be autonomously controlled by computers in the vehicle. There are dozens of different types of drones; however, they can be categorised as either those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, or those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

BETWEEN VIDEOGAMES AND REALITY

The documentary, made by Vincent Verweij and Fred Sengers in the Netherlands in 2012, shows the imperceptible and inexorable use of drone missile attacks post 9/11. A statement that they are Obama’s favorite weapons opens the documentary.

It is indeed true that even though drones were already introduced under Bush presidency, their use increased significantly under the Obama administration. During Bush’s term, there were 52 military space satellite directed drone strikes, while there were at least 300 in Pakistan alone under Obama between 2004 and 2013. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2,500 and 3,500 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan, between 400 and 800 of them were civilians, including around 170 children.

The documentary associates the use of drones with a playing a videogame. Drone operators, as a matter of fact, do not experience the physical side of war, because they work from locations far away from conflicts.This blurry line between the virtual world and the destruction that these weapons cause in reality raises the question about drone operators’ ability to distinguish between a game and reality.

BREAKING THE SILENCE 

DroneThe screening was followed by a panel discussion on the dangers of  ‘clean war’ of drones, during which many questions have been raised. How can the US and other states legitimise the use of drones under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL)? How can the killing of individuals, rather than capturing them and giving them a fair trial, be justified? How precise are the drones really? What about civil casualties and how many are there?

During the debate, it was said that the constant threat and attack of drones in Yemen ‘make life harder than death’ for many of the 50 % of the poorest Yemenis population, that live with less than one US dollar a day. The devastating economic consequences for the country, as well as the psychological stress of the people that are threatened, was also stressed.

The movie also depicted the ongoing technology developments of UAVs. The ETH in Zurich is developing drones that are able to build a wall by themselves. Other centres have developed drones with human-like legs. The new developments are laying out the increased risk of an arms race in UAVs.

THE POSITION OF THE UNITED NATIONS

In a public lecture on Friday March 1, Ban Ki Moon stressed the fact that the use of armed drones should be strictly regulated and controlled by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL).

The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism is leading a group of international specialists, who will examine CIA and Pentagon-covert drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

WHAT WILL THE FUTURE BRING?

In response to a question from the audience about the future of drones, a panelist explained that he sees the ongoing arms race to significantly increase, however he does not think that courtiers will use them much in war against each other. In his opinion, the drones are still far too expensive and to easy to be shot down from other countries for they have no defense system. But another panelist, on the other hand, sees their use in a much broader sense by the police for surveillance and crowed control, for example.

Is this future of surveillance, were the police can use drones to film the inside of our houses and use the technology to eavesdrop conversations something we can look forward to? Will governments use drones to control regions where they cannot get as easily now, such as Xinjiang region in China?

To get more information regarding these issues, check Reaching Critical Will’s Fact Sheet on Drones.