UN rights experts call for transparency in the use of armed drones, citing risks of illegal use

A US Air Force RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. Photo: US Department of Defense/James L. Harper Jr.

25 October 2013 – Expressing concern about the potential for illegal use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, two United Nations human rights experts today called on States to be transparent in their use, to investigate allegations of unlawful killings and to respect the full range of applicable international law.

“Drones are not inherently illegal weapons,” Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, acknowledged at a panel that discussed his new report as well as that of Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“But we need to focus on their use,” he stressed, pointing out that more and more States were likely to use the remote-controlled airborne weapons, which can act with lethal force almost simultaneously with detection of targets. “A world where multiple States use such weapons in secrecy is a less secure world.”

He urged concerted effort to maintain protections of the full range of international law in the face of drone use, including human rights and humanitarian standards, the applications of which have become problematic as countries functionally widened the definition of battle zones and appropriate targets in the fight against terrorism and insurgencies.

Mr. Heyns said in addition, that the right to life must be protected as the supreme right, along with the right not to be deprived of life without strong legal rationales.

“Both States using drones and States on whose territory drones are used have their own obligations to respect international standards and prevent violations,” he said in his report,

The report emphasised that the legal framework for maintaining international peace as well as preserving the right to life makes up “a coherent and well-established system.”

Both he and Mr. Emmerson, agreed that crucial in maintaining such human rights protections was transparency on the part of countries that use drones. “I urge States to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to their lethal extra-territorial counter-terrorism operations and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of drones,” Mr. Emmerson said.

Mr. Emmerson said his investigation into legal aspects of drone strikes came in the wake of a joint statement by 16 States to consider the issue, following allegations of disproportionate civilian casualties and other deep concerns.

He showed a reconstruction of a drone strike that was alleged to have killed and wounded dozens of civilians when it hit a Jirga, or council of tribal elders in North Waziristan, Pakistan.

He said it was among a number of reconstructions that had examined particular strikes and which showed that it was possible to provide a degree of accuracy in resolving competing claims. “Greater transparency is quite possible,” he said, citing security experts who denied that such transparency cancelled the drone’s tactical advantages.

He maintained that in any case where civilians are alleged to have been killed by a drone, the country responsible for the strike must provide a detailed description of the incident as part of its duty to investigate.

United Nations Special Rapporteurs are independent, unpaid experts in their fields who report to the UN Human Rights Council.


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