Armed Drone Export Standards Sought by U.S. and Dozens of Allies

  • Declaration says the aircraft fall under international law
  • Israel, China haven’t agreed to sign on to the declaration

The Obama administration is working with as many as 40 nations to develop principles for the export of armed drones --- and unarmed versions configured to carry weapons -- in recognition of the booming demand worldwide for pilotless aircraft.

A declaration to be made public Wednesday by the State Department sets the stage for a meeting next year to create a standards-setting organization. The statement has been signed by some of the U.S.’s closest allies, including the U.K., Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

While President Barack Obama has called for more transparency in the use of armed drones, human-rights groups have said the U.S. continues to keep most such operations secret and has significantly underestimated civilian deaths from its use of the aircraft against terrorists in Pakistan and other nations.

‘Legitimate Interest’

“Recognizing that misuse of armed or strike-enabled” drones “could fuel conflict and instability and facilitate terrorism and organized crime, the international community must take appropriate transparency measures to ensure responsible export and subsequent use,” the U.S.-backed declaration says. But it adds that such concerns shouldn’t be seen as undermining a state’s “legitimate interest” to produce, export or acquire such systems.

The declaration is intended to deal with armed aircraft and not the burgeoning interest in using pilotless craft for non-lethal intelligence, surveillance or “delivering pizzas,” according to Brian Nilsson, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls.

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Israel and China, two of the world’s largest drone-makers and exporters, haven’t signed the declaration, according to Nilsson.

“We continue our engagement with them,” he said. Russia, whose relations with the U.S. are increasingly strained, also is absent from the joint statement.

The declaration “is the beginning of a discussion on a controversial topic that warrants its own stand-alone” evaluation, Nilsson said in a telephone interview. “This is getting people comfortable” that “we need to have a discussion and it commits them to participate.”

Nilsson said that being a signatory to the declaration will be a consideration when he weighs whether his office, which issues export licenses to U.S. companies, should approve a sale. Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics are the biggest U.S. makers of unmanned aerial vehicles. General Atomics makes the armed Predator and Reaper drones used by the U.S. Air Force and the CIA to attack terrorists.

Civilian Deaths

Coming in Obama’s final months in office, the declaration reflects an evolution of U.S. drone policy that started in 2013 with a White House directive to review the issue. That was followed by the State Department’s establishment last year of an export control policy governing the commercial sale of armed drones.

The White House released statistics in July indicating that as many as 116 civilians were killed in 473 clandestine strikes by U.S. drones and piloted aircraft outside the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria from the beginning of Obama’s presidency in 2009 to the end of 2015. The strikes killed as many as 2,581 combatants, the White House said.

Outside estimates are much higher. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 380 to 801 civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya during the same period.

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