By Chris Cole. Drone Wars: Drone Warfare and International Law: Findings of U.N. Reports on Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Executions

Four important reports relating to the use of armed drones have been established over the past ten days. Two official reports by UN Special Rapporteurs examine the legal issues surrounding the use of armed drones. These were closely followed by a detailed report from Amnesty International on the impact of drones in Pakistan and a related report by Human Rights Watch on the impact of drones in Yemen. All four are important and worth reading in detail. Here we focus on the two UN reports, particularly how they relate to the UK use of armed drones. Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary  or arbitrary executions, states that his report is aimed at "clarifying the application of international Law rules and reiterate their authority, from the perspective of protection of the right to life." In some ways, the 25-page report can be read as a direct challenge to the US use of drones for targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Heyns challenges, for example, the US position, most apparent in the leaked DoJ White Paper, of a much broader concept of 'imminence' which would mean in effect that no immediate threat is necessary with regard to using lethal force under self-defense rules. Heyns states: "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. Heyns also argues forcefully that only a State's highest authority can give permission to another State to use forcefully that permission is withdrawn, such force must cease. This is clearly a reference to arguments within the US that despite Pakistan Government announcements urging an end to US drone strikes, authority has previously been given or alternatively that secretly, Pakistan continues to give permission for the strikes through the ISI, the Pakistan security service. Heyns also calls follow-up drone strikes, if aimed or wounded, rescuers and medical personnel, dubbed as 'double-tap' strikes by the media, war crimes. There have been reports that the U.S. have carried out such strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. However Heyns does not just focus
on the US use of drones for targeted killing in Pakistan but also raises the wider questions about drones and their challenge to international peace and security. "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." "Given that drones greatly reduce or eliminate the number of casualties on the side using them, the domestic constraints, political or otherwise, may be less restrictive than with the deployment of other types of armed force. This effect is enhanced by the relative ease with the details about drone targeting can be withheld from the public eye and the potentially restraining influence of public concern. Such dynamics call for a heightened level of vigilance by the international community concerning the use of drones."        

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