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The Humanitarian Impact of Drones

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“In Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time,” said Pervez Musharraf, the country’s former president. He was talking about the very first drone strikes being initiated in his country by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, in 2004.

Since then, over 700 air and drone strikes have taken place across Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Since 2015, over 3,000 strikes have taken place in Afghanistan potentially causing the deaths of up to 1,400 civilians. The harm to people, places, and communities at the local, national, and international level is manifold and multi-faceted encompassing physical and psychological trauma, as well as raising serious questions about human rights, international law, ethics, and government transparency.

This is the reason why WILPF’s disarmament programme has published a new book, The Humanitarian Impact of Drones. One of the key objectives of the book is to refocus the debate about armed drones on the harm caused to people, disrupting narratives that emphasise the “low human costs” of deploying explosive force from drones as well as shift the burden of proof onto users of armed drones, putting pressure on them to justify their policies and practices. Through country and regional case studies, as well as personal stories, the book illustrates the multiple humanitarian effects of armed drone use as well as explore dimensions of the problem that are seemingly overlooked by policymakers or media in their coverage of the issue.

It also takes a close look at gendered aspects of drone use in a chapter authored by the director of WILPF’s disarmament programme, Ray Acheson—an aspect frequently overlooked in mainstream commentary on this issue. She illustrates that drones should be viewed through a gender perspective to help situate in them in the broader context of militarism and the culture of violence, and highlights ways in which the use of drones can constitute gender-based violence and undermine gender equality. “Gender analysis should not be a footnote. It offers specific tools that can help unpack or understand more fully the ways drones are perceived by users and victims; the physical and psychological responses to the use of armed drones; and the situational context of drones in terms of military technology as well as gender relations,” writes Ms. Acheson.

The book has been published at an opportune time, when not many countries yet possess or use armed drones but are on the verge of acquiring them. The United States, by far the world’s largest user of armed drones, is attempting to develop international guidelines to regulate their export through a process that has been largely secretive and closed to civil society. WILPF signed a joint open letter from multiple civil society organisations in September as the only way to register input to that process. It was published around the same time that US President Trump announced that he would like to relax some of the policies and limitations used in drone strike targeting and decision-making, in order to expedite those processes. The number of US-led drone strikes have spiked since he took office.

Joy Onesoh, President of WILPF Nigeria, authored a case study about Nigeria, which is the eighth country to use armed drones in combat. “As a Nigerian, I have a number of additional concerns about potential effects of the use of drones. These include the potential harms on the environment, human health, and agriculture,” she writes. “Drone activities, in particular their munitions and the munitions used against them, may pose a threat to public health within these regions and their sources of livelihood: the cultivation of crops and rearing of animals.”

The book was launched at an event in New York in October that involved several of the authors and editors. It is published jointly with Article 36 and the International Disarmament Institute at Pace University. It is available online at and Reaching Critical Will intends to organize further events and opportunities in 2018 to present and explore its content.