Drones getting closer to home

On Oct. 18, a U.N. report stated that 33 drone strikes carried out around the world had resulted in civilian casualties in possible violation of international humanitarian law. The report by the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, examined incidents in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Gaza.

Japanese should not assume that remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles for military purposes are being used only in remote parts of the world. In May, a report prepared for the U.N. Human Rights Commission by Christof Heyns, a South African professor of human rights, said that the United States, Britain, Israel, South Korea and Japan have developed various types of fully or semi-autonomous weapons, including drones.

Japanese citizens and politicians also need to be aware of the danger that a Chinese drone flying near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea may lead to an accidental military clash.

Remotely controlled weapons are not only causing humanitarian problems but also leading to a new type of arms race. Currently there are no clear international rules to govern their production, capabilities and use. At the very least, the international community should work out rules to control such weapons by taking into consideration the various problems and aspects related to them.

Drone attacks are mainly carried out by the U.S. and Britain against members of global terrorist organization al-Qaida and the Taliban, a Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Emmerson’s report said that, in Pakistan, up to 2,200 people have been killed in 330 drone strikes since 2004, including at least 400 civilians, and that more than 30 civilians were killed in drone attacks in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013. It added that, in Yemen, 58 civilians are thought to have been killed.

The report noted that the involvement of the CIA in U.S. drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen “has created an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency.”

On Oct. 25, Emmerson called on the U.S. and other countries that use drones such as Britain and Israel to declassify as much as possible “information related to their lethal extra-territorial counterterrorism operations and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of drones.”

Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons agreed Nov. 15 in Geneva to start discussions on “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” also known as killer robots, in May 2014. But the U.S. and Britain insist that their drones are not killer robots since they don’t automatically identify and attack enemies.

The number of countries in possession of drones increased from 41 in 2005 to 76 in 2011, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A report by the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution says that currently 87 countries have drones and that at least 26 of them have larger systems like the U.S.’s Predator used for offensive operations.

Japan is considering introducing the Global Hawk, the U.S.-made reconnaissance drone, for use by the Self-Defense Forces. South Korea has already decided to adopt the system.

On Sept. 9, what is believed to be a Chinese drone entered Japan’s air defense identification zone near the Senkaku Islands, and an Air Self-Defense Force fighter scrambled against it. In recognition of the fact that the absence of international rules on drones is making the situation around the Senkakus prone to an accidental military clash, Japan should join other nations in promptly writing such rules, although imposing an immediate ban on the use of drones may be difficult.