United States to export armed drones: Can it enforce how they're used?

A new US policy governing the sale of armed drones to allied nations lays out principles that foreign governments must abide by in order to receive the aircraft.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan on a moonlit night, Jan. 31, 2010. The Obama administration is amending its regulations for weapons sales to allow the export of armed military drones to friendly nations and allies. The State Department said Tuesday, the new policy would allow foreign governments that meet certain requirements – and pledge not to use the unmanned aircraft illegally – to buy the vehicles that have played a critical but controversial role in combating terrorism and are increasingly used for other purposes.

The Obama administration has approved the widespread export of armed drones for the first time, the White House announced Tuesday. Remotely-controlled armed aircraft, also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems, are a central, albeit highly controversial, part of the United States' counterterrorism strategy.

Human rights advocates have been critical of the Obama administration’s frequent use of drones and the high number civilian casualties that have resulted from their use. Now, foreign governments allied with the US will be permitted to purchase them.

The new policy governing the sale of armed drones lays out principles that foreign governments must abide by in order to receive the aircraft. The measures aim to ensure that even allies with questionable records protecting human rights and civil liberties use the drones in a way the US government would find acceptable. But some experts question to what extent these end-use assurances can be enforced.

"Regardless of what guidelines are established for their use, history tells us that once the United States transfers a weapon to another nation it is extremely difficult to control how it is used," William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told the left-leaning news outlet Common Dreams. "Nations that possess armed drones will be able to engage more easily in military strikes against neighboring nations or attacks on their own people."

The rules for selling drones are not much different from those governing the sale of any other weapons, says Steve Bucci, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

“It’s a standard lash up for weapons sales. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. These rules outline how they can be used. They are as legally binding as any other sale of weapons internationally, which means they are as legally binding as the parties want to keep it,” Mr. Bucci says. “There isn’t a whole lot we can do about it if they misuse them, because that would mean invading their country. But most countries try to stay within the spirit of these end use agreements because it keeps the door open for future sales.”

Because the details of the new rules are currently classified, the full scope of the guidelines remains unclear. However, the State Department released a statement Tuesday outlining some of the major points of the new policy.

According to the statement, monitoring of compliance with the end-use assurances will be required, and recipients will be expected to use the systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Under the new rules, officials state that requests for drones from foreign governments will be examined on a case-by-case basis and will be subject to rules establishing a “strong presumption of denial.” This implies that foreign governments will have to make a strong case for acquiring an armed aircraft and assure the US government that the drones will be used for national “self-defense,” and not for the “unlawful surveillance” of or use of force against domestic populations.

Currently, Britain is the only country that is flying armed drones purchased from the US. A State Department official stated that previous requests for armed drones from Italy and Turkey would be reviewed in light of the new policy, Reuters reported.

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