Introduction to the Holy See’s Statement on Weaponized Drones

Today at Just Security, the Holy See’s Attaché to the United Nations for Disarmament and Security Affairs, Antoine Abi Ghanem, guest posts on a significant new statement by the Holy See on the use of weaponized drones. This is the first public statement by the Holy See on the issue, and highlights the growing willingness on the part of diplomats around the world to publicly voice their concerns about U.S. targeted killings practices and policies.

The Holy See’s statement was originally delivered during inter-governmental discussions (attended by the U.S.) in November 2013 at the annual meeting of the 117 States Parties to the Convention on Certain Convention Weapons (CCW), a framework convention through which existing or new weapons can be discussed, regulated, or prohibited. The discussions this year in part focused on emerging autonomous weapons (weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention) and led to an agreement to hold an expert meeting on autonomy in 2014.

However, the debate about autonomous systems at the CCW also opened up current drone use to debate and critique at the inter-governmental forum.  The Holy See’s statement links existing remotely-piloted drones to the legal and ethical issues raised by autonomous weapon systems, and highlights the Holy See’s concerns about the current use of drones for targeted killings. In particular, while acknowledging the benefits drones may bring, the Holy See raises important concerns about civilian harm, accountability gaps, the lack of transparency in their use and the resulting difficulty in assessing their legal compliance. The Holy See’s statement also raises ethical and political concerns about the potential for the threshold for the use of force to be lowered, global proliferation, and negative precedent-setting. 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).