Drone-enabled surveillance is fast becoming all-pervasive, having moved rapidly from military combat to other areas of law enforcement and migration control.
“This raises new challenges for international human rights law and international humanitarian law rights because our civil liberties may be impacted as drones are used to monitor our actions and movements", says international relations expert Dr Raenette Taljaard who recently obtained her doctorate in Political Science at Stellenbosch University (SU). She completed her dissertation entitled A Critical Discourse Analysis of Drone Warfare and Drone Norm Life Cycles under the supervision of Prof Amanda Gouws from SU's Department of Political Science.
Taljaard analysed a collection of speeches by key policymakers in the Obama administration on the use of drones. This was a time when drone usage became both more widespread and somewhat more visible. She also looked at how drones were represented and used in cinematography and how such representations serve to justify their use in the public's mind. This was contrasted with an analysis of resistance to such normalisation by, among others, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs and transnational global human rights and feminist organisations such as CODEPINK and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Taljaard was interested in how the world talks about drones, the use of force and targeted killing, how it is being normalised, and what the geopolitical and geostrategic implications of this may be.
“The study found that there has been considerable normalisation of drone use by politicians and policymakers as well as in popular culture through cinematography," says Taljaard, adding that such normalisation “represents a fundamental challenge to core principles of international law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law."
“As such, the study flags concerns about what such normalisation may mean for future wars that could use lethal autonomous weapons and the geopolitical consequences of such wars if established prescriptions of international law are eroded.
“Two specific incidents, namely when Iran shot down a US drone in its airspace and a drone attack on Saudi oil fields have shown how dire a drone war in a place like the broader Middle East might be."
Unsurprisingly, international human rights group, feminist organisations, and the UN Special Rapporteurs, among others, have challenged the normalisation of the use of drones, says Taljaard.
“This is evident in the last report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killing that called for international debates about these burning issues amongst UN member states in 2020.
“In the context of UN disarmament talks on the Convention on Conventional Weapons, expert groups on lethal autonomous weapon systems, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and other like-minded civil society groups are making progress on seeking to call for a ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems."
According to Taljaard, there's a need for greater public awareness globally regarding the significance of some of the broader societal changes these new systems represent.
“We need for much greater clarity and transparency and greater collaboration between academics, civil society, lobbyists and multilateral and regional bodies to ensure a richly textured discourse and policy process regarding drones that will allow their productive leveraging for the benefit of humanity and transcend the 'bad' and 'good' drone binary we see in current discourses on drones."
Another issue that we should also pay attention to is the “vast chasm that exists between technologically-driven war-making decisions vested at the heart of executive power in government and expanded executive powers in the context of wars or public emergencies and the capacity of legislators and legislatures to keep pace and conduct proper oversight."
Taljaard says that even though the use of drones in combat situations has mostly occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, many states around the world are rapidly increasing the development of drones and drone swarm technology.
“We are already at a stage where drone proliferation is taking place globally. There can be little doubt that drones and drone proliferation and the concomitant and ceaseless surveillance will dramatically increase global instability."
According to Taljaard, her findings would benefit, among others, policymakers, legislators, and researchers who focus on the rise of the surveillance state, the use and proliferation of drones, and rising global geopolitical tensions and conflict.
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Dr Raenette Taljaard
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