UN Warns US 'Assassination Drones' Violate International Law
October 20, 2013
Owen Bowcott / The Guardian
A UN report says the CIA's use of unmanned drone attacks has led to numerous civilian deaths and casualties and says US protocols regarding the use of remote-controlled assassinations are 'hurdle to transparency.' A related report by the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions says drone strikes harm global security.
Drone Strikes by US
May Violate International Law, Says UN
Owen Bowcott / The Guardian
(October 18, 2013) -- A United Nations investigation has so far identified 33 drone strikes around the world that have resulted in civilian casualties and may have violated international humanitarian law.
The report by the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, calls on the US to declassify information about operations coordinated by the CIA and clarify its positon on the legality of unmanned aerial attacks.
Published ahead of a debate on the use of remotely piloted aircraft, at the UN general assembly in New York next Friday, the 22-page document examines incidents in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Gaza.
It has been published to coincide with a related report released earlier on Thursday by Professor Christof Heyns, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which warned that the technology was being misused as a form of "global policing".
Emmerson, who travelled to Islamabad for his investigation, said the Pakistan ministry of foreign affairs has records of as many as 330 drone strikes in the country's north-western tribal areas since 2004. Up to 2,200 people have been killed -- of whom at least 400 were civilians -- according to the Pakistan government.
In Yemen, Emmerson's report says that as many as 58 civilians are thought to have been killed in attacks by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). "While the fact that civilians have been killed or injured does not necessarily point to a violation of international humanitarian law, it undoubtedly raises issues of accountability and transparency," the study notes.
Reaper UAVs, used by the RAF in Afghanistan, have a range of 3,700 miles (5,900 km), a maximum airspeed of 250 knots and can ascend to 15,300 metres (50,000 feet), the document explains. Their missions can last up to 18 hours.
The Reaper carries three cameras as well as laser-guided bombs. Three communication networks relay information between the RAF ground station in the UK and the UAV: "a secure internet-based chat function, a secure radio routed via satellite and a secure telephone system".
"The United Kingdom has reported only one civilian casualty incident, in which four civilians were killed and two civilians injured in a remotely piloted aircraft strike by the Royal Air Force in Afghanistan on 25 March 2011," Emmerson's report states. An RAF inquiry found that "the actions of the [ground] crew had been in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement".
The special rapporteur said that he was informed that during RAF operations in Afghanistan, targeting intelligence is "thoroughly scrubbed" to ensure accuracy before authorisation to proceed is given. RAF strikes, he points out, are accountable in the UK through the Ministry of Defence and parliament.
By contrast, Emmerson criticises the CIA's involvement in US drone strikes for creating "an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency". He adds: "One consequence is that the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere."
Recent prounouncments from Barack Obama, however, have stressed that "before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured".
Emmerson acknowledges that: "If used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders." But, he cautions, there is "no clear international consensus" on the laws controlling the deployment of drone strikes.
The special rapporteur concludes by urging: "the United States to further clarify its position on the legal and factual issues … to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial counter-terrorism operations; and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, together with information on the evaluation methodology used."
Owen Bowcott is the legal affairs correspondent for The Guardian.
UN Rapporteur Christof Heyns
Condemns Use of Drone Strikes
Owen Bowcott / The Guardian
LONDON (October 17, 2013) -- Deploying drone strikes as a form of global policing undermines international security and will encourage more states and terrorist groups to acquire unmanned weapons, a UN report has warned (PDF, 24 pages).
The study has been submitted to UN general assembly by Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who is the organisation's special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Although no state is identified in the report, the comments are clearly directed at the legal problems raised by the US programme of aerial attacks against al-Qaida supporters in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
"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 states.
"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."
Heyns's 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 US has said that its use of drones against al-Qaida is an act of self-defence and permissible as part of the administration's global "war on terror".
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."
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."
Countries cannot consent "to the violation of their obligations under international humanitarian law or international human rights law," Heyns says, in a passage that may be aimed at countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where US drone strikes regularly occur.
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.'"
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