Drone strikes raise fundamental concerns for humanitarian protection

In advance of the United Nations Human Rights Council debate in Geneva on 20 June, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions issued a report highlighting concerns with the US practice of killing people with missiles launched from remote-controlled aircraft. The report notes that these drone strikes have dramatically increased in the past three years. These drone strikes raise a number of serious issues in relation to the use of weapons and the protection of civilians.

First and foremost, regardless of the technology being used, these killings are often likely to be illegal. They are taking place by one country in another country, often without specific consent. There is no recognisable legal process. In some cases it is not clear who has been killed or whether they were the intended targets or civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay has said that: “drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law, in particular the principle of distinction and proportionality.” It is very important that those concerned with violations of human rights and humanitarian law are investigating this practice, including at the Human Rights Council today.

There is very little assessment or at least no transparent sharing of information about the casualties from these attacks. The Every Casualty Campaign is calling for every casualty of armed violence to be promptly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged. In the context of these drone strikes, however, this is clearly not being done. The report by UN Special Rapporteur Heyns emphasises this point, stating that: “disclosure of these killings is critical to ensure accountability, justice and reparation for victims or their families.”

The method of killing by drones frequently involves ‘Hellfire’ missiles, which are explosive weapons. When they are fired in populated areas they risk killing and injuring civilians caught in the blast and fragmentation effects from the explosion. This broader problem of explosive weapons use in populated areas was highlighted in the recently released report by the UN Secretary General on the protection of civilians, which called for states to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas. The International Network on Explosive Weapons is working with states to bring this issue to the fore during next week’s UN Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians.

Lastly, the specific technology of remotely-operated drones in this context raises two fundamental concerns. Firstly, the use of drones may lower the threshold for armed attacks by removing certain political and military barriers to the use of force. Secondly, the practice of ‘signature strikes’ based on patterns of behaviour by individuals and groups of individuals who are under surveillance, but whose identity may not be known could presage the emergence of decision-making by computers for such attacks. Groups involved with the International Committee for Robot Arms Control have expressed concerns in this regard, calling for a ban on the use of fully autonomous weapons.

These drone strikes, then, bring to the fore wider concerns around extrajudicial killings, the lack of casualty recording that can help ensure the rights of victims, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the increasing use of remote-controlled weapons and military robots. All of these issues will require careful scrutiny and sustained action by civil society if we are to ensure civilian protection and curb a movement towards diminished accountability in the use of force.

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