Press Conference by Special Rapporteurs on Executions, Human Rights while Countering Terrorism

25 October 2013

Press Conference by Special Rapporteurs on Executions, Human Rights while Countering Terrorism

25 October 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteurs on Executions,

Human Rights while Countering Terrorism


Expressing concern at the growing number of civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes, two United Nations special rapporteurs said today that greater adherence to existing international legal frameworks could ensure greater transparency and accountability in an effort to alleviate the situation.

Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, spoke at a Headquarters press conference after submitting their separate reports to the General Assembly earlier in the day.

Clarifying that his report was interim, Mr. Emmerson said he saw three main challenges.  First, there was a critical need for clarity on legitimate rules of lethal targeting.  The “significant lack of certainty” in international law on situations in which drone attacks could be mounted, and on who could be targeted, had a bearing on civilian casualties.

Second, he said, the lack of transparency was the single greatest obstacle to assessing with precision that nature of the targets.  The United States publicly acknowledged its actions in Yemen and Somalia, but kept those in Pakistan classified.  Its public commitment to migrate targeted killings away from the Agency towards the Department of Defense, while not a solution to all problems, was a significant step in the right direction, he added.

He said that the third challenge was the lack of consensus around key principles of international law relating to their significance in asymmetrical warfare.  Part of the process was to seek States’ clarification on the subject, so that the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council could impose some discipline on counter-terrorism activities internationally.

Mr. Heyns opened his remarks by stating that drones were not illegal, but raised challenges.  Unmanned aircrafts significantly shrunk the time between the acquisition of actionable intelligence and the pursuit of action.  The proliferation of States using drones underlined the need to lay greater focus on the legal and policy parameters of their use.  “In general, drones should follow the law and not the other way round,” he said.  There was not a need for new treaties, but the application of the existing system more rigorously.

To a question on whether shifting the jurisdiction of United States drone operations would make a difference, Mr. Emmerson said that would be more appropriate in terms of engagement in armed conflict and would increase transparency.  He cited the limited progress in Afghanistan, where the Defense Department issued reports on drone strikes that had gone wrong, whereas the Central Intelligence Agency maintained full secrecy of the programme in Pakistan.

Mr. Emmerson said he remained optimistic on the issue of transparency in the period ahead.  Putting pressure on the “wall of silence” could have an impact, he said, adding that the number of civilian casualties had dropped in Pakistan over the last two years.  Mr. Hynes cautioned that institutional shift alone would not guarantee greater transparency.  The United States Joint Special Operations Command, too, worked under considerable secrecy.  “We need to wait and see where we are going.”

Responding to another question, Mr. Emmerson said the unanimous resolution by Pakistan’s democratically elected Parliament earlier this year negated any suggestion that the country had consented to United States drone attacks.  Greater transparency and accountability were also needed in light of the international obligation to ensure full reparations to victims and their families.

Mr. Emmerson said he would issue a final report after having investigated individual drone strikes with significant casualties and provided those States involved an opportunity to respond.  It was important to gather contextual information to understand the circumstances of the attacks, he said.  Civilian casualties were tragic, but not necessarily a violation of international law.  The problem was not with the technology, but the rules of engagement.

Both Rapporteurs said they agreed that the international framework was relatively established on the principles of self-defence and extraterritoriality, but that States had to agree on their application to particular situations, not simply allowing precedent to become policy.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.