Why the EU should uphold human rights in its defence policy

Wim Zwijnenburg / Aug 2017

Photo: Shutterstock


As a reaction to Trump’s isolationism and ongoing terrorism threats, the European Union is setting ambitious goals for scaling up its defence capabilities. While the intention seems commendable, the question is how to do it right, and what does “right” mean in defence in relation to the European Union’s foreign policy goals? Should human rights standards and European core values prevail over secrecy and unaccountability? What is acceptable in the fight against terrorism and where should we draw the line? Those questions are crucial and it is the European Union’s duty to answer them now that it is investing much more in its defence. Let us look at this through the lens of drones armed to kill.

Using armed drones to execute a presumed terrorist, thousands of miles away, rather than sending troops in a perilous territory seems tempting for three main reasons. First, troops are not physically present on the battlefield, which means that they do not risk their lives and that the logistics behind such operations is simplified. Second, no causalities means that it does not cost anything politically whereas support for large-scale military intervention is sinking. Third, because drone strikes convey an impression of “clean” war with attacks of a “surgical precision”, they can gather public support and, as a result, encourage governments to use them more often.

But recent examples, especially of US drones strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia showed that, regardless of the target, lethal force should never be used without clear safeguards and accountability mechanisms. Never; not even in counter-terrorism operations. Human rights groups and drone strikes survivors have rightly criticized the legality of such attacks and the death of innocent civilians.

In an open letter addressed to then President Obama, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights and civil rights organisations called on the United States “to publicly disclose standards and criteria governing “targeted killings”; ensure that US lethal force operations abroad comply with international human rights and humanitarian law; and enable meaningful congressional oversight and judicial review”. 

All of which should be kept in mind by the European Union when going further down the road of using armed drones in counter-terrorism operations. So far, only the United Kingdom has used drones to kill, but it is only a matter of time before other member states start to do the same. France and Italy already possess military drones; Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland will soon have their own; and targeted killing operations are already increasing through air strikes and special forces raids.

What is more: research, development and acquisition will be even further encouraged with the new multibillion European Defence Fund announced last June by the European Commission. The Funds aims at fostering member states cooperation, including around projects aiming at acquiring and developing unmanned systems, drone technology and necessary-linked satellite communications. It would also allow the European Union to become more independent from the United States.

Sadly though, and despite the strong critics against the US drone strikes, EU member states and EU institutions have yet failed to articulate clear and robust policies on the use of lethal force outside of the battlefield, nor have they clarified the legal basis and chain of command behind drone strikes.

In February 2014, the European Parliament expressed its “grave concern over the use of armed drones outside the international legal framework” and adopted a motion to urge the European Union to develop an appropriate policy response that “upholds human rights and international humanitarian law”. The motion also called on the European Union to “promote greater transparency and accountability”, to “allow for judicial review of drone strikes” and to “ensure that victims of unlawful drone strikes have effective access to remedies”. It also urges the Council to adopt an EU common position on the use of armed drones. However, and despite a Draft Common Position on armed drones which was commissioned by the European Parliament, the motion has not led to any policy change or attempt within the EU.With new security threats, one can easily imagine added pressure on governments to deliver on counter-terrorism while losing as few lives and political supporters as possible. Armed drones will be an obvious and easy answer; far too easy for populist governments. This explains why the European Union and its Member States should start regulate the acquisition, development and use of armed drones and uphold human rights while developing their defence and counter-terrorism policies. Such leadership – both political and moral - on the use and proliferation of armed drones is needed now, before it becomes too late.




Wim Zwijnenburg

Wim Zwijnenburg

August 2017

About this author ︎►

Related content