As international delegates gather in Geneva this week for the Arms Trade Treaty conference, the US State Department is crafting language that could establish rules for exporting drones.
The State Department wrote a draft declaration, entitled "Proposed Joint Declaration of Principles for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)," which US delegation chief Brian Nilsson is presenting to foreign representatives in Geneva.
Obtained by Defense News, the document presents five principles for international standards. These include the "applicability of International law" when using drones, a consideration of existing arms control laws, recipients’ history of following through with international obligations, proper transparency, and a pledge to "ensure these capabilities are transferred and used responsibly by all States."
"The declaration is a political commitment by its signatories that stands on its own merits, but it is also intended to inform future, more fulsome international standards that could address factors beyond compliance with existing international law and transparency requirements," a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Defense News.
It remains unclear whether any other countries have signed the document. The US will likely submit that information to the United Nations in October. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that this is an attempt by Washington to rein in broadminded drone policies that it helped to champion in the first place.
"This is an attempt by the Obama Administration to confront the inevitability of drone proliferation in a way that promotes the responsible use of drones by other countries," former Pentagon official Michael Horowitz told Defense News.
While guidelines for drone use would be only marginally effective in achieving Washington’s aims, establishing rules for drone sales allows more complete control over how the technology is used in the future.
"One of the best tools the US has to shape how countries use drones, ironically, is to export drones to them, given the ability of the US to leverage arms export rules to shape how countries use technology," Horowitz said.
"Especially if the US increasingly views drone proliferation as inevitable, the Obama administration likely views rules of the road as critical to ensure that the rest of the world uses drones responsibly."
Whether the rest of the world plays along remains to be seen.