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Drones and the challenges of remote warfare


Now moving to the analysis of new technologies themselves, starting with the weapon system that has been the object of extensive coverage in the past few years – be it in the media, by lawyers, diplomats or military, or in governmental and non-governmental reports: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or as they are more commonly referred to, drones.

While most would agree that drones are not unlawful per se, their growing use during armed conflict have clearly posed the question of the adaptation of IHL to the modern battlefield. For the few countries that possess new technologies, the key development is undoubtedly the ability to commit acts of war without mobilizing conscripts, occupying territories, and conducting vast land operations, as was the case during the major wars of the twentieth century. Owing to the increased reach of drones, troops are less exposed to direct enemy fire. Above all, because of this weapons’ precision, the payloads needed to destroy the military objective can be reduced and the harm done to civilians and their property may be minimized. Having said that, this precision depends on the quality of the intelligence based on which a targeting decision is made, which is difficult to gather at a distance. From a legal perspective, the decreasing resort to ground forces could – and already does – make the use of force on the territory of non-belligerent States more problematic, by eliminating traditional disincentives for attacking the enemy outside the combat zone. This perceived lower barrier to entry creates the impression that the battlefield is “global”. Although the debate is still ongoing regarding the geographical scope of application of IHL, most agree that attacks conducted with drones (or any other weapon) without the requisite nexus to an armed conflict are governed not by IHL, but by international human rights law standards of law enforcement (which limit much more strictly the instances in which such force may be used).

[...] the greater physical distance between the operator’s location and the target also seems to increase the moral distance between the parties to the conflict.

From an ethical and psychological perspective, it seems that keeping the operators of these new weapons far from the battlefield, in a familiar environment, significantly reduces their exposure to stress and fear and thus decreases errors due to emotional factors. However, the greater physical distance between the operator’s location and the target also seems to increase the moral distance between the parties to the conflict. Thus, the proliferation of attacks conducted by remotely piloted drones fuels a debate about the so-called PlayStation mentality that allegedly affects the moral judgement of the drone operators and exacerbates the crime-inducing phenomenon of dehumanization of the enemy in time of war. Those who counter this assertion point out that drone operators might in fact be more exposed morally than gunners or bomber pilots as a result of prolonged observation of their targets and the damage caused by the attacks.

This also raises the question of the mental picture that video-game players form of the reality of modern wars: usually, that of a lawless world in which anything is permitted in order to defeat the enemy. In cooperation with several National Red Cross Societies, the ICRC began a dialogue with players, designers, and producers of video games and aimed at the production of games incorporating the applicable law in time of armed conflict and presenting players with the same dilemmas as those facing combatants on today’s battlefields.


In this video, Christian Rouffaer presents the “Make Arma not war” contest, highlighting the role of video games as a backdrop to promote IHL messages, and in particular to raise awareness about violence against health care in the context of the ICRC’s Health Care in Danger initiative.