The United States was one of 44 countries to sign a declaration Wednesday that sets the stage for a conference next year to create formal rules regarding the export and use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones.
“As a world leader in the development and deployment of military UAVs, the United States seeks to promote efforts to ensure the responsible export and subsequent use of this rapidly expanding technology,” the State Department said in a fact sheet released to coincide with the declaration. Indeed, it is undeniable that the U.S. has led the way in raining extrajudicial death from the skies on those it has designated terrorists, including in some cases its own citizens, in a wide variety of countries.
The White House released an estimate this summer that U.S. drone strikes have killed perhaps 116 civilians or less, while calculations by outside observers put the number much higher, possibly at 800 or more. In terms of total casualties, including those persons the U.S. deems “combatants,” all parties agree that the death toll is well into the thousands.
“The U.S. military’s drone program has expanded far beyond specific strikes to become an everyday part of its war machine,” Reuters reported Wednesday in connection with the announcement of the international declaration. “Drones fired more weapons than conventional warplanes in Afghanistan last year and the ratio is rising, U.S. Air Force data show.”
It is no wonder, then, given America’s increasing involvement with and reliance on drone warfare, that the U.S. would want to rally other countries to its cause of declaring such weapons systems legitimate. While many countries — including the U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan — were willing to play along with the U.S., however, several crucial players were absent from Wednesday’s declaration.
Russia, China, France, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, notably, were among the countries that did not join in endorsing the statement. “Israel, in particular, had previously expressed great skepticism about the deal,” reports DefenseNews, which also quoted Michael Horowitz, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor and former Pentagon official, who discussed some of the hurdles to overcome in reaching any understanding with the countries that remain wary of today’s agreement.
“One challenge for the United States and its allies and partners will be getting China, Russia and other actors on board with any joint declaration,” Horowitz said. “China, in particular, may view reluctance on the part of the US to export UAVs as a market opportunity.”
Some of the smaller countries and highly dependent U.S. allies that were persuaded to sign the declaration, meanwhile, may have had their own reasons for being agreeable beyond humanitarian and international law considerations. Specifically, some of these countries may want to be in good standing to buy U.S. manufactured drones in the near future.
Brian Nilsson, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for defense trade controls, reportedly said, as paraphrased by Bloomberg news, “that being a signatory to the declaration will be a consideration when he weighs whether his office, which issues export licenses to U.S. companies, should approve a sale.”
“Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics are the biggest U.S. makers of unmanned aerial vehicles,” Bloomberg notes. “General Atomics makes the armed Predator and Reaper drones used by the U.S. Air Force and the CIA to attack terrorists.”
It may be the case that the U.S. — borrowing language from Wednesday’s declaration — wants nothing more than to implement “appropriate transparency measures” to ensure that drones are used only for “legitimate purposes” to “promote peace and security.” Or, like Russia, China, and all the other non-signatories to the declaration, America may instead be making a move that realistically has more to do with ruthless self-interest than any genuine concern for the international greater good.