European Parliament Demands EU Drone Projects Assess Their Impact on Human Rights

On 26 February 2014 the European Parliament agreed a landmark resolution on remotely piloted aircraft systems (drones). The resolution called on the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Member States, and the Council of the EU to ban the practice of extrajudicial targeted killings. This was a first step for the European Parliament toward regaining some democratic oversight over drone policy. The motion was initiated by MEPs Ana Gomes, Rui Tavares, and Sarah Ludford, and it received the support of five of the seven political groups in the European Parliament.

The Parliament also resolved that it should be kept properly informed about the use of EU funds for projects associated with drones, and for ‘human rights impact assessments’ to be conducted in respect of future projects. The resolution noted that, ‘Seven Member States (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain) have signed a letter of intent with the European Defence Agency (EDA) tasking it to draw up a study on joint production of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) craft, which can be used to strike military targets’. Representatives of the Arms Trade and the European Commission met at the EDA Annual Conference in Brussels on 27 March 2014 to discuss progress of drone development, but the human rights implications of drones were not on the agenda. Head of the EDA, and Vice-President of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton addressed the conference and named drones as one of four capabilities the European Union would most like to acquire.

peace pole

Quakers on the QCEA study tour hold a banner in front of Quaker House’s peace pole, April 2014.

Why are drones are a human rights issue?

In May 2013 the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) published a study on ‘Human rights implications of the usage of drones and unmanned robots in warfare’. International laws of armed conflict require those who take military action to be able to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The report condemned the use of drone technology due to the drones’ lack of capacity to make this distinction. The report said that the popular portrayal of drone strikes as highly accurate ‘surgical warfare’ is not based in fact. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in drone attacks vary widely (from 10%-90% of those killed. Instead, said the report, a separate assessment is required for every drone operation.

The European Convention on Human Rights lists the right to life as the first of many human rights. But human are social beings: the study also raised concerns about the impact on communities living under constant threat due to drone activity. A report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law found that drones cause considerable harm to civilians, particularly psychological well-being as drones increase anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. The report found that the threat of drones caused citizens to avoid gathering in groups, including at funerals and important community dispute-resolution bodies. The fear of drones was also found to cause some families to keep children at home. Other human needs of families and communities are also threatened when economically active people are killed, access to food crops is lost and infrastructure is damaged by drone activity. All of these factors make the human rights impact of drones difficult to assess.

Human Rights Impact Assessments

Impact assessments are widely used to identify whether a policy or activity contradicts a wider principle or value, such as sustainability or equality. For human rights, an impact assessment should seek to systematically identify how a policy might limit the rights of individuals or groups. Human rights can be defined using the international standards of the European Convention on Human Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should be expected that a robust human rights impact assessment goes to the source and directly engages with those people whose rights might be at risk.

The European Parliament resolution specifically calls for ‘Human rights impact assessments in respect of further drone development projects’. This is a specific challenge: assessing the impact of the development of armed drones, rather than the impact of their use. We know that the use of arms infringes on rights, but this is not always adequately considered. For example, there is a lack of coherence in calls from the Council of the European Union to increase European arms manufacturing as a mainstream economic activity.

QCEA calls on the European Defence Agency to respond to the spirit of the European Parliament resolution by announcing its intention to conduct an urgent human rights impact assessment on drone development, including assessment of the views of those affected by the development and use of drones. The Impact Assessment should be used to identify all the human rights liable to be affected, the degree of interference with the right(s) in question, and the necessity and proportionality of the interference in terms of policy options and objectives.

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