Deploying drone strikes as a form of global policing undermines international security and will encourage more states and terrorist groups to acquire unmanned weapons, warned a UN report.
The study, submitted to UN general assembly by the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns, says: “The expansive use of armed drones by the first states to acquire them, if not challenged, can do structural damage to the cornerstones of international security and set precedents that undermine the protection of life across the globe in the longer term.”
The report of Christof Heyns, a South African law professor, says: “The use of drones by states to exercise essentially a global policing function to counter potential threats presents a danger to the protection of life, because the tools of domestic policing (such as capture) are not available, and the more permissive targeting framework of the laws of war is often used instead.”
Intentional killing is only permitted when protecting against an imminent threat to life, the report comments. “The view that mere past involvement in planning attacks is sufficient to render an individual targetable, even where there is no evidence of a specific and immediate attack, distorts the requirements established in international human rights law.”
The report’s comments are directed at the legal problems raised by the US program of aerial attacks against al-Qaida supporters in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere although no state is identified in the report.
The report is due to be debated at the UN general assembly in New York on 25 October.
It calls for international laws to be respected rather than ignored.
The rapporteur notes: “Drones come from the sky but leave the heavy footprint of war on the communities they target.
“The claims that drones are more precise in targeting cannot be accepted uncritically, not least because terms such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘militant’ are sometimes used to describe people who are in truth protected civilians.
“Armed drones may fall into the hands of non-state actors and may also be hacked by enemies or other entities. In sum, the number of states with the capacity to use drones is likely to increase significantly in the near future, underscoring the need for greater consensus on the terms of their use.”
Countries cannot consent “to the violation of their obligations under international humanitarian law or international human rights law”, says Heyns, in a passage that may be aimed at countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where US drone strikes regularly occur.
A Guardian report said:
The report was welcomed by the London-based human rights group Reprieve, which represents several civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Its legal director, Kat Craig, said: “This report rightly states that the US’s secretive drone war is a danger not only to innocent civilians on the ground but also to international security as a whole.
“The CIA’s campaign must be brought out of the shadows: we need to see real accountability for the hundreds of civilians who have been killed – and justice for their relatives. Among Reprieve’s clients are young Pakistani children who saw their grandmother killed in front of them – the CIA must not be allowed to continue to smear these people as ‘terrorists.’”
The report focuses on the use of lethal force through armed drones from the perspective of protection of the right to life.
Although drones are not illegal weapons, they can make it easier for States to deploy deadly and targeted force on the territories of other States. If the right to life is to be secured, it is imperative that the limitations posed by international law on the use of force are not weakened by broad justifications of drone strikes.
The Special Rapporteur reiterates that legal regimes related to drone strike constitute an interconnected and holistic system and emphasizes the distinctive role of each in protecting the right to life.
He cautions against wide and permissive interpretations of their rules and standards and underlines the centrality of transparency and accountability obligations. The report states:
The right to life is widely regarded as the supreme right. The right to life is recognized in the constitutional and other legal provisions of States and through a wide range of national and international actions and practices, and unlawful killing is universally criminalized. Some violations of the right to life are considered to be war crimes or crimes against humanity.
States must be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of armed drones. They must publicly disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, operational responsibility, criteria for targeting, impact (including civilian casualties), and information about alleged violations, investigations and prosecutions.
States must bring their practices and policies in line with international standards, including their standing orders and rules of engagement as well as their targeting norms.
States must ensure meaningful oversight of the use of drones and, where appropriate, investigation and accountability as well as reparations for their misuse.
Drone operators must not be placed within a chain of command that requires them to report within institutions that are unable to disclose their operations.
Whether or not they recognize this as a legal obligation, States should capture rather than kill during armed conflict where feasible.
On the states on whose territory armed drones are used the report says: States must continue to honor their own human rights obligations and recognize that they cannot consent to the violation of human rights or international humanitarian law by foreign States. They must recognize that the duty to protect the right to life of their subjects rests primarily with them.
States must investigate allegations of violations of the right to life through drone killings and provide redress where applicable.
Where States consent to the use of force, they should do so openly and clearly.
It adds: Intergovernmental organizations, States and others, especially those with an interest in using armed drones or against whose territory and constituents they are used, should engage in individual and collective consensus-seeking processes to determine the correct interpretation and application of the established international standards for the use of drones that are equally applicable to all States. –ountercurrents.org