Against Drones




Letter to Senator the Hon David Johnston
Minister for Defence from Anti-Bases on
Weaponised Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Dear Senator,

The Australian Defence Magazine May 2014 contained a report of the speech the Deputy Chief of Air Force, AVM Davies, gave at the 2014 Defence/Industry Conference. In the speech, the DCAF argued in favour of the ADF acquiring armed drones. It was said that he comprehensively addressed public concerns about the ethics of armed drones. However, if the report is a reliable account of what the DCAF said, his attitude to the ethical controversy surrounding armed drones is alarmingly cavalier and he shows poor appreciation of why so much legal opinion, including that of the UN Human Rights Council, is damning of their use.

I write to you for clarification of the Australian Government’s policy on weaponised drones.

According to the article, AVM Davies stated that in his mind there is no ethical question to be answered about the matter because all rules of engagement under which the ADF operates are mandated by the international laws of war. He assured his audience that ADF acquisition and use of armed drones will be legal because all acquisitions and uses will be examined in detail for legality, that is, for their potential for “civilian cultural and collateral damage” and to ensure the principles of “necessity, distinction and proportionality” are met.

AVM Davies’s confidence in the ADF’s rules of engagement is, to say the least, disingenuous. Australia already is deeply implicated in armed drone operations, namely, ISAF use of armed drones in Afghanistan, and in the USA’s covert counter-insurgency program, uses which are steeped in serious, unresolved ethical and legal questions.

In Afghanistan, the RAAF supported US and possibly UK drone strikes, by, for example, using Israeli-owned surveillance drones to identify targets. Furthermore, AVM Davies himself admitted in his speech that “Our troops on the ground in Afghanistan have benefitted immensely from the presence of armed UAS provided by other nations.”

Even more telling is Australian complicity in CIA and JSOC drone-enabled targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, as well as Afghanistan, through Australia’s hosting of the US satellite ground station at Pine Gap.

In Afghanistan, there is a dearth of official records and acknowledgement about civilian fatality and injury caused by ISAF targeted killings. Of the more than 1000 drone strikes over 13 years that the Afghani people have suffered, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), in its attempt to fill the information gap, has examined 450, finding reports of 2681 deaths, of which 480 were civilian. BIJ investigations also strongly suggest that drone strikes are likely to kill more civilians that other types of air strike.

According to the BIJ, the 350 US drone strikes on the tribal regions of North West Pakistan since 2004 have killed 701 people, all identified. In the same period, reported deaths due to drone strike were 2384 to 3779. Reported civilian deaths were 472 to 885, of which 176 were children. Inevitably, stories have also emerged of numerous serious injuries, and crushing harm done to local economies and community life.

In the ground breaking October 2012 report, Living Under Drones, produced by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities, it is estimated that only 2% of militants killed in Pakistan are so-called ‘high value’ militants . It is also worth noting that the government of Pakistan repeatedly condemns US drone strikes in its territory, considering the attacks as violation of its sovereignty and counter to its internal security.

The uses to which the armed drone has been put throughout its short history indisputably offend against moral norms. There is also a high probability that these uses are illegal: the level of “civilian cultural and collateral damage” caused by drone strikes make it unlikely that either US or UK actions could be shown to conform to the International Humanitarian Law requirements of necessity, proportionality and discrimination. The fact that the US and UK refuse to open their actions to independent legal scrutiny and make themselves accountable is compounding their culpability. Both the US and UK have put themselves above the laws of armed conflict and in so doing are eviscerating the very authority of these laws.

Australia has been complicit in these immoral and possibly illegal uses of drones, indicating that ADF rules of engagement are ‘broken’. Instead of acquiring weaponsied drones, the Government is surely obliged to consider where it stands legally and ethically; be open about ADF and Pine Gap involvement in drone warfare; support a thorough investigation into allied drone use; and, for the sake of global security, work with the UN to find ways to effectively regulate drone technology.

On behalf of the AABCC, I ask you to please make available to us the Government’s policy on the acquisition of armed drones and the ethical and legal justification for it. I would also be grateful to receive information on Australia’s position in regard to the investigative work being undertaken by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, which includes an enquiry into individual drone attacks that lead to civilian harm.

Denis Doherty

National Coordinator AABCC, 4 August 2014

Cc Christine Milne, Senator for Tasmania, Australian Greens