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Report of the Working Group on Drones

Debating armed drones Drones have become ubiquitous and low-cost. They can be as small as birds, carry high resolution cameras, and be remotely piloted with great accuracy. Drones are mostly used for surveillance, but the Canadian Royal Air Force is now requesting that the Trudeau government authorizes the purchase and the development of armed drones.

This raises the question, what the armed drones will be used for and in which theaters. Given the levels of integration between Canadian and American armed forces, will the targeted killings of individuals or groups in other lands during peacetime be authorized, as the U.S. government now does, despite the fact that unintended casualties occur among civilians. Or, will the use of armed drones be limited to Canadian soldiers, under command engaged in direct combat? Given the increasing precision of drones, could self-defense of Canadian soldiers be carried out by using drone-mounted nonlethal arms? International Law does not authorize governments to do targeted killings abroad in peacetime. The U.S. has been enormously stretching the right to self-defense in its use of armed drones.

In March 2016, the London Review of Books published a review of Scott Shane’s 2015 book on drones. This review, authored by philosophy professor and author, Thomas Nagel, debated the question of whether targeted killings have an ethical and legal basis. Referring to Obama, Nagel wrote: “The president as killer is a chilling new face of the role of commander-in-chief. I suspect that it is the personal, individualised nature of drone warfare that many people find so repellent.”

Armed drones will profoundly alter the conduct of war. Many people think that an open public debate is necessary before the Canadian government authorizes armed drones. Many people think that lethally armed drones should be banned.

Michel Duguay is Chair of the Science for Peace Working Group on Drones and Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Universite Laval; he can be contacted at:

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