The planet is moving into a “second drone age” with uncontrolled proliferation and no standards governing the use of armed drones, a United Nations expert has warned the UN Human Rights Council.
“The mere existence of armed drones does not justify their indiscriminate deployment. However, to date, there are no robust standards governing drones’ development, proliferation, export, or capability for use of force. No transparency. No effective oversight. No accountability.” – Agnès Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
She outlined recommendations to address this issue in the report she presented today at the Human Rights Council.
“Armed drones, whether deployed by State or non-State actors, can nowadays strike deep into national territory, targeting individuals and public infrastructure. While some ‘incidents’ such as the drone strike in January 2020 against Iran’s General Soleimani or that against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities generate strong political reaction, the vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, drone technologies and drone attacks generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force, and the very institutions established to safeguard peace and security.
This is not to suggest that armed drones are mainly, or solely, responsible for a weakening compliance with applicable international law. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects such as schools, hospitals and ambulances in Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Yemen and Libya, to name but a few, evidence the tragic disregard of the most essential humanitarian principles. Yet, while investigations, commissions of inquiries, UNGA and UNSC deliberations have led to some condemnation of these breeches of international humanitarian law and the resulting mass violations, by comparison, and despite their significant civilian casualties, the consequences of targeted killings by armed drones have been relatively neglected by states and institutions.
A reasonable argument can be made that to single out drones is misplaced, given that many targeted killings are carried out by conventional means – e.g. Special Operations Forces. Indeed, these also raise serious concerns. The present report thus contains findings applicable to all forms of targeted killings, no matter their method. Nonetheless, understanding the particularities of armed drone technologies is crucial if we are to keep pace with current and expected developments impacting on the protection of the right to life.
Two previous Special Rapporteurs focused on drones’ targeted killings, setting out the applicable legal obligations under three legal regimes. They lamented the lack of clarity among States about their obligations, the absence of accountability and States’ broad and permissive interpretations of the rules. In 2013, then Special Rapporteur Christoff Heyns warned that ‘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’.
Seven years later, the world has entered what has been called the “second drone age” with now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue. For the first time, in January 2020, a State armed drone targeted a high-level official of a foreign state on the territory of a third one – a significant development and an escalation.
It is against this backdrop that the present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations. With their lot of unlawful deaths and arbitrary killings, they are also revealing of the severe failures of national and international institutions mandated to protect human rights, democracy, peace and security.”
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