Drones at BISA 2013

The 20th and 21st of June was the annual BISA conference, this year held in Birmingham. At the event there were a number of papers presented that related to covert war in general and the use of drones in particular.

The first session I attended on the Thursday was “Shadow Wars I” chaired by Elspeth Van Veeran (University of Copenhagen) where papers were presented by Peter Finn (Kingston University) and Ruth Blakeley (University of Kent) about illegal detention and rendition, by Gwen Wordington (University of Kent) about the different laws applicable to borderscapes in the same situations, and also by Eveline Lubbers (University of Bath) on corporate spying. Whilst none of these papers dealt with drones directly they served as an excellent reminder of the problems of the pursuit of alternatives to targeted killing by drone strikes and of the wider picture of the “War on Terror” or “Overseas Contingency Operations” which are on-going. Peter Finn spoke first detailing research which aims to map the system which is involved in the process of detention and the multiplicity of actors involved: a range of US agencies as well as private contractors. Ruth Blakely outlined her part in a project of mapping rendition flights and of exploring denial devices used by the British government in attempt refute any involvement in the process or that it was even occurring. She outlined the impact of her research, including the generation of legal proceedings in Scotland. Gwen Worthington gave an interesting insight into how the perception of “thick” borders (i.e. more than just a line on a map) create legal confusion, and how this confusion may enable individuals detained to be treated unlawfully. She demonstrated that different countries apply different legal codes at different points and that this creates loopholes which need to be addressed. Finally, in this session Eveline Lubbers provided a timely reminder that “secret war” and clandestine activity is not just something happening abroad, as she reported on her research into the undercover policing of activist groups in the UK.

The second session I attended, “Hitting the Target” spoke more directly to the issue of drones. Chaired by Prof. Sir Mike Aaronson, papers were presented by Ulrike Franke (University of Oxford), Marie Breen-Smyth (University of Surrey) and Roberta Guerrina (University of Surrey). Ulrike Franke’s paper looked at the increasing popularity of UAVs throughout the world. She identified (although the reason for this was questioned by the audience) their particular prevalence amongst democratic states, their association with technological prestige and their benefits for risk averse publics. She noted, as have many, the paucity of reliable information regarding the acquisition of drone technology, particularly given their dual use capabilities. Ulrike further suggested that a ban on the use and development of UAVs was highly unlikely as previous weapons banning had required the support of Western (particularly European) countries that, for the time being at least, seem keen to expand their arsenals with drones.

Marie Breen-Smyth focused her comments on the six major problems with the use of drones, in particular the issue of auditing proportionality without reliable data of civilian casualties (especially injuries). The six key issues identified were: Moral distance (which created some debate with the audience), accountability in international law, extrajudicial killing/execution, civilian casualties, proportionality both ad bellum and in bello, and finally secrecy and transparency. Under the umbrella of moral distance Marie highlighted the oft quoted idea of pilots having “PlayStation mentality” and introduced the idea that if knowledge about the mediation of impact of strikes was limited to what can be seen on the screen the this was a situation of moral distance. For accountability under international law she noted that there was a lack of clarity and a recent judgement had raised the question of where international Human Rights Law- not just International Law is applicable to those on the ground as well as to troops operating such systems. She briefly touched on extrajudicial killings and civilian casualties and then moved on to focus on her key issue of proportionality. Here she claimed that any adjudication of proportionality would require robust data on civilian deaths and injuries and this in turn requires the design an acceptance  of a protocol for counting civilian deaths and injuries, although she noted the complexity of ascertaining who constitutes a civilian and what this means in relation to direct participation in hostilities by civilians. Finally Marie noted that without reliable data regarding the impact of drone strikes, accountability is impossible.

Roberta Guerrina brought the feminist perspective to the drone debate. She noted that the gender lens is currently lacking in the literature, despite the increasing recognition that gender is accepted as a necessary component of international relations research. She began with two main premises, that technology is gendered and that warfare and international relations are also gendered. She then outlined two research agendas: firstly the need to understand the changing nature of the battlefield- that with women on the frontline, and the notion that with technological advances the feminised body becomes less relevant on the battlefield with an impact on how hegemonic masculinity is viewed within the military. Secondly,  the need to understand the view of those on the receiving end of the drone strikes and how is it possible to understand this impact without making women into passive victims. She challenged the audience to unpack the silence of the lack of gender in the drone debate and to problematize the media representation of drones as ungendered.

The final session of the day was “Shadow Wars II” chaired by Ruth Blakely (University of Kent) with papers presented by Elspeth van Veeran (University of Copenhagen), Wali Aslam (Brunel University) and Kyle Grayson (Newcastle University) all focusing on the ethics and politics of targeted killing and drone warfare. Elspeth kicked of the session with a complex analysis of the importance of what is and is not visible in war. She developed a concept of “machinic vision” which aimed to understand the impact of seeing images and intelligence through a machine, and in particular, how this affected the development of foreign policy. In addition, Elspeth outlined how the use of sensors and the network capability of modern warfare connected US foreign policy and specific ways of seeing.

Wali Aslam’s paper compared the threat construction of the US and Pakistan in relation to drone strikes. He outlined how Imran Khan has been successful in gaining support for his political leadership by constructing the US drone strikes as a particular threat to the Pakistani public. He then compared this with the construction of the US threat perception by the use of a war paradigm by the Obama administration which justifies drone strikes as pre-emption. In using these two case studies Wali aimed to demonstrate how both construct threats which enable them to legitimise their policies, how the securitization discourse of “us versus them” creates a specific identity for each party, with the use of “produced absences” (the non-discussion of issues which don’t fit the model) to strengthen the sense of threat.

Kyle Grayson’s paper showed some connections with Elspeth’s, focusing on the role of vision in drone strikes. In a complex presentation, Kyle aimed to move past technological considerations to a more aesthetic understanding of the drone perspective- to understand the impact of what is and is not seen. Kyle included the idea of the drone as a prosthesis in foreign policy, providing a level of pleasure and sense of power for the pilot who can see the target without being seen in a way that empowers acts of violence. He also rejected the notion that flying a drone bears a resemblance to playing a PlayStation game, noting that the volume of data collected by drones requires 19 analysts per drone to analyse.

With drones clearly staking a claim to a place on the research agenda it was fascinating to see the different perspectives of those involved in investigating this area: the different methods, considerations and conclusions reached. It will certainly be interesting to see if and how the debate has progressed at next year’s event.

Information on this year’s BISA conference can be found at: http://www.bisa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=203&Itemid=144

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This post was written by lcm263 who has written 17 posts on The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

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