Last Thursday a United Nations panel convened for a nine-month investigation into the use of drones in warfare. This panel will attempt to answer the question of whether drones stop the spread of terror or spread it further. In an interview with Ben Emmerson, a prominent British human rights lawyer who will be heading the panel, the New York Times reports that this investigation is not meant to single out the United States nor prevent drones from being used in warfare altogether.
“This form of warfare is here to stay, and it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians,” said Emmerson.
Apparently there is a desperate need for transparency when it comes to drone usage. According to truth-out.org, "the fact that most American citizens know nothing about drone attacks is no accident. Although the White House says that President Barack Obama authorizes many of the drone strikes himself, it does not acknowledge or comment on specific attacks. Names of the targets are not provided – and sometimes not even known by the CIA itself – and the U.S. does not need to provide evidence to anyone to show that the killings are warranted."
So can simply increasing drone awareness and the legal implications of drone warfare be enough to generate responsible use of drone strikes? Ostensibly so. On Tuesday Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first U.S. city to pass anti-drone legislation. Now, I realize that there are two separate issues at work in these two cases. The UN investigation is focused mainly on civilian casualties abroad and fighting the War on Terror. The Virginia resolution, on the other hand, deals mostly with privacy rights and the surveillance capabilities of drone technology. I believe that the two are interrelated.
Emmerson asserted that the UN panel is for the purpose of promoting legal safeguards internationally. The Virginia "no drone zone" has also been driven by a need for legal protection. U.S. News and World Report quotes Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer who helped pass the resolution, as saying, "lawmakers should be looking at [drone privacy] issues now in order to ensure that there are safeguards in place to protect individual privacy from these invasive technologies."
So, the need for legal protection from the threat that drones pose is a transcendent value. As the UN panel brings more attention to drones and how they are used, following in Charlottesville's example, more and more cities may decide that they need legal protection from drones too. This will make it extremely easy for the UN to advise policy changes in the U.S. regarding drone usage if that is what the panel finds should happen. Privacy issues will mobilize domestic support for more transparent drone policy. The UN panel will be able to use this public opinion momentum to enact lasting change regarding drone warfare. The end result is that Americans will have more privacy and civilians abroad will be less dead. Everybody wins.