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An MQ-9 Reaper drone on a runway

An MQ-9 Reaper drone on a runway

By Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne,
Associate Professor in Public International Law, University of Reading


A recent BBC news article reported on the development of a new, smaller type of armed drone that is able to aim and fire at targets in mid-flight, close to the ground. The drone is available for private sale, and the article notes the concern that such weapons technology could fall into the ‘wrong hands’ and be employed by terrorist organisations to target civilians. Indeed, it has been reported that Islamic State now uses low-cost drones in lethal ways by attaching explosives to them.

It is right to ask what happens if these weapons fall into the ‘wrong hands’. But whose, then, are the ‘right hands’? The assumption here, of course, is that States will use drones in a more reasonable, limited and law-abiding way. But we must not lose sight of the dangers potentially posed by drones in the hands of States. Drones have, over the last decade, become a common means by which States carry out airstrikes around the world. They have been used by the UK, US, France, and others to target individuals in countries including Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism maintains records on US drone operations, and since 2008 its reports show that the US has carried out a minimum for 417 confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan alone, resulting in at least 2,359 confirmed deaths. More generally, in the US-led war against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it was reported last month that since the beginning of the new Trump Administration in January this year, more than 2,200 civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition airstrikes (not limited to drones) – this represents a huge increase in civilian casualties (the minimum number of civilian deaths from airstrikes in the conflict under the Obama Administration is estimated at 2,300).

In a recent academic article that three colleagues and I co-authored, we explore the different layers of rules under international law that regulate the use of armed drones and the ways in which armed drones have put pressure on these legal parameters. One of those layers is the law of armed conflict, which prohibits the direct targeting of civilians and the disproportionate loss of civilian life when targeting military objectives. The circumstances in which drones are used, however, means that identifying whether someone is a combatant or a civilian can be extremely difficult, and this is reflected in the disagreements between government and independent estimates of civilian casualties. In a report last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, the US’ claim that between 64 and 116 civilian deaths had resulted from strikes in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia between 2009 and 2015 was said to be a ‘fraction’ of the Bureau’s estimates that put the figure at between 380 and 801. At the very least, greater governmental transparency is essential if any effective form of checks and balances is to be applied to deadly force by armed drones.

Military Force

Another layer of international law rules relates to when a State can use military force on another State’s territory, and these too have come under pressure from drones. In our article, we demonstrate how armed drones make overseas airstrikes much easier and safer from the point of view of the attacking State – there is no risk to your own force, unlike more traditional ground invasions or manned airstrikes. This allows wars with different actors (such as Islamic State) to spread. The possibility of wars becoming ‘global’, battlefields becoming undefined, and the exception of war becoming the norm of everyday life, is far greater with these weapons.

We must not, therefore, lose sight of the grave threat that drones potentially pose to civilian populations. It is for this reason that we set out some key legal principles at the end of our article that we hope will be a starting point in discussions on how better to regulate these weapons. In addition, a resolution adopted last month by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, to which I contributed as a member of the Institute’s task force on drones, sets out in clear terms the core legal principles regulating armed drones.

Initiatives like these are essential to protect populations from these kinds of risks that are posed by armed drones, regardless of whose hands they are in.


Image:  An MQ-9 Reaper drone on a runway, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguso acquired from United States Air Force (Website), Licence: Public Domain.

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By Dr Simonetta Longhi, Associate Professor of Economics

Despite more than 20 years of anti-discrimination legislation in the UK, ethnic minorities on average are still paid less than the white British majority.  This is not something which is unique to the UK: ethnic and racial wage differentials are common in many developed countries.

But why?

There is no lack of academic research on this issue, so let’s look at what we have we learned. Although it is difficult to quantify, discrimination in the labour market is likely to play a role; but there are likely to be other factors.

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Arteries © Francisco Baccaro

One of the most significant philosopher of our time, Alain Badiou, is heading to the University of Reading this November for the The Moving Form of Film: Exploring intermediality as a historiographic method conference, about the discussion of intermediality as a historiographic method in film.

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Dr Nicholas Klingaman from the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at the University of Reading is an expert in Queensland’s weather and climate. He is funded by the state’s government to investigate the causes of floods and droughts and the impacts of climate change on rainfall.

The state of Queensland, in northeast Australia, experiences considerable year-to-year and decade-to-decade variations in its rainfall. During 2000-2005, Queensland received only 84% of its long-term average rain. All of the last six years (2006-2011) have seen above-normal precipitation, however, at 133% of the average rainfall. 2011 was the second-wettest year since 1900 – only 1974 was wetter – with severe flooding in southeast and central Queensland, including in Brisbane. Oscillating periods of flood or drought are common: all years but one in 1947-1955 were wetter than normal, while all but two years in 1956-1969 had below-average rain. These variations in rainfall have dangerous consequences for the state’s agriculture, water resources and infrastructure.

Graph of Queensland rainfall

For each year, the red bars show the percentage difference between the Queensland rainfall for that year and the long-term (1900-2011) average. Values larger than zero indicate wetter-than-normal seasons; negative values are drier-than-normal seasons. The black line shows an 11-year running average of the red bars, to indicate decade-to-decade variations in rainfall.

Understanding the climate phenomena that drive variations in rainfall would improve scientists’ ability to predict swings between drought and flood. A three-year project between the Walker Institute for Climate System Research and the Queensland Climate Change Centre of Excellence has investigated these climate drivers of rainfall, including the possible impacts of climate change.Our research has found that in summer (December-February), winter (June-August) and spring (September-November), El Nino and La Nina cause state-wide variations in rainfall. ‘El Nino’ refers to abnormally warm tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures; during ‘La Nina’ these waters are colder than normal. Events typically last for 10-12 months.

Heating or cooling the Pacific redistributes tropical precipitation: Queensland receives less rainfall during El Nino and more in La Nina. We have found that while stronger La Nina events lead to heavier rainfall, the drying during El Nino has no relationship to the El Nino’s magnitude.

The intense La Nina event of 2010-2011 brought severe rains to the entire state. While the strength of the connection between Queensland’s rainfall and El Nino and La Nina has varied since 1900, there is no long-term trend and hence no evidence that climate change is influencing this relationship.

Within Queensland, our analysis found that the heavily populated southeast corner – including Brisbane – and the tropical Cape York peninsula are regions of high rainfall variability. Southeast Queensland rainfall is influenced by the prevailing winds: east-to-west winds bring moist air from the ocean, promoting intense rainfall; west-to-east winds pull in hot, dry air from the continent. Rainfall in Cape York is concentrated in summer; the peninsula is dry the rest of the year. Summer rainfall is closely linked to the number of tropical cyclones that pass through or near the area.

The climate models used for the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show little consensus on how Queensland’s rainfall will change in a warmer world. A survey of 22 models showed that by 2100, Queensland may be up to 40% wetter or 40% drier than 1961-1990. This information is of little use to those devising adaption policies.

Our research has used a model with much finer resolution than those used for the IPCC report, which provides more detail on how regional climates (eg Queensland’s) may change as the world warms. We first verified that this model, called HiGEM, could simulate the key climate phenomena that drive variations in Queensland’s rainfall. This increases our confidence in HiGEM’s projections for Queensland’s climate in a warmer world.

When HiGEM is run with twice the current carbon dioxide concentrations – equivalent to 2100 under our current emissions trajectory – Queensland summer rainfall increases by 20%. Autumn rainfall, however, declines by 25%, such that the annual-total rainfall does not change. The seasonal changes combine to compress the Queensland wet season, however. Currently, this runs from late November through early April; in the double-CO2 world, the wet season lasts only until early March. This would make Queensland much more reliant upon the heavier mid-summer rains in January and February. If the mid-summer rains were to fail, the shorter wet season would mean that the entire year would likely be dry.

Although the annual-total rainfall changes little, the number of wet days declines while the average amount of rain on each wet day increases by nearly 20%. This effect is most apparent for extreme rainfalls: the number of days with more than 100 millimetres of rain increases by 50%. These changes would have considerable impacts on agriculture and water management, as well as increasing the risk of flooding.

A clear disadvantage of our work is that we have examined only one model. Our detailed investigation of the climate drivers of rainfall, however, combined with our verification of HiGEM’s ability to simulate them, argues for giving greater weight to these results.


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