UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres has raised concerns over the increased use of drones in targeted killings in his 2020 report on the Protection of Civilians; this is only the second time the impacts of drones have been addressed in the annual report since the first iteration 21 years ago.

This year’s report underscores the urgent need for the international community to counter the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) during armed conflict, outlining the most pressing violations that caused human suffering in 2019, including the increased killing and physically injuring of civilians through drone strikes. It is therefore crucial that States articulate clear policies and legal positions on the use of drones with the explicit aim of protecting of civilians. Of particular concern is the increased use of armed drones in Libya, referred to by the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Libya as ‘the world’s largest theatre for drone attacks’, and an increase in targeted killings by US strikes, including by drones in Somalia.

The report addressed these concerns, stating that :

“The use of armed remotely piloted aircraft or drones by an increasing number of States and some non-State armed groups to conduct attacks in such places as Libya, Somalia and Yemen reinforce long-standing concerns over compliance with international humanitarian and international human rights law, accountability and transparency (see S/2013/689, paras.26-28). As drone technology proliferates, the need to address these concerns is increasingly acute. The current absence of debate around the proliferating acquisition and use of armed drones leaves a policy vacuum which has to be addressed by Member States, in cooperation with the United Nations and other international organizations and civil society. Increasing transparency, oversight and accountability would increase confidence in adherence to international law, promote common standards to reduce the potential for unlawful acts, facilitate the implementation of export controls and ensure more effective protection for civilians.”

In 2019, tens of thousands of civilians, including children, were killed and injured in global conflicts. In addition, civilian objects such as schools, churches, and markets were destroyed. Gruesome violence and terrible conditions forced millions of civilians from their homes. Meanwhile, humanitarian operations were continually hampered and healthcare facilities were deliberately attacked.

Therefore, scrupulous compliance with IHL and international human rights law (IHRL) and standards is needed, especially as the use of armed drones by States and non-state armed groups is increasing. Drone strikes have caused enormous civilian casualties and destroyed innumerable civilian objects in global conflicts, while parties that deploy drones argue these type of aircrafts reduce the risk of civilian casualties. However, as the use of drones is shrouded in secrecy, it is hardly possible to verify to what extent this is the case. Therefore, drone users must increase transparency and take accountability for their drone deployment to affirm they are acting in compliance with IHL and IHRL. Furthermore, a debate around the proliferation of drones among States, in cooperation with civil society, international organisations, and the United Nations, is essential to set clear benchmarks and standards that ensure the utmost protection of civilians.

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