Military drones and the law

Writing a thesis on the legal aspects of the use of drones was an unexpected outcome of a military staff command course recently undertaken by Associate Professor David Grinlinton.

Military Drones

For 25 years, Associate Professor Grinlinton’s “second career” with the Naval Reserves has included some unique experiences including deployments to Afghanistan and Timor-Leste. In 2013, he was nominated by the New Zealand Defence Force for a different sort of challenge – a Joint Command and Staff Promotion course run by the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. Conducted over two years, the programme is for mid-career officers of the Canadian Forces and includes a handful of international officers from other allied nations. It consists of several distance learning modules, including Leadership and Ethics, Command and Management, War and Society, National Security and International Affairs. Further modules on operational planning culminate in residential exercises in Toronto each year.

“As an academic, it was a salutary experience to be back in the student role again with mountains of prescribed articles and materials to be read, and a number of ongoing assignments, online discussions and substantial research papers to complete to rigorous deadlines,” he says.

“But it turned out to be a very interesting and useful experience, including exposure to the distance learning format that could be applied to some aspects of law teaching at Auckland.”

Successful completion of the programme, qualifies an officer to fill command and staff appointments in operational settings, and in Associate Professor Grinlinton’s case, will also contribute to his current training role in New Zealand. It also provided the opportunity to continue on to the Master of Defense Studies programme at the Royal Military College of Canada and, in April 2016, he completed a thesis focusing on the uneasy balance between public interests and private rights in the use of military drones.

“Happily, the thesis passed muster and I graduated in June.”

His thesis examines the effects on human rights, civil liberties, privacy and private property rights of the increasing use of drones and more sophisticated unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for surveillance by military and other law enforcement agencies. The paper also explores the civil aviation ramifications of the use of drones in civil airspace, and the threats posed by their potential use by terrorists and criminal elements.

It concludes that the rapid pace of technological development in this area is outstripping the ability of governments to keep pace with challenges such as protecting human rights, privacy, property rights, aviation security and national security. Governments need to address these challenges as a priority, and to provide better policy guidance and regulatory controls on the use of drones in both the military and civil sectors of society.

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