Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has written a new report in which especially the issue of targeted killings through armed drones is addressed.

In 2010, 2013 and 2014, former UN Special Rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christof Heyns initiated the legal discussions on the many concerns around state accountability for extrajudicial killings with armed drones in the Human Right Council. Likewise, current UN Secretary-General Guterres and former UN Secretary General Ki-moon stated in 2013 and 2020 that the use of armed drones has reinforced concerns over compliance with international humanitarian and international human rights law, accountability and transparency. The recent report of Callamard functions as yet another call to incite the international community to debate the use of armed drones.

Callamard writes that currently, “at least 102 countries had acquired an active military drone inventory, and around 40 possess, or are in the process of procuring, armed drones. […] Since 2015, Israel, Iraq, Iran, UK, US, Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Pakistan have allegedly operated drones, including for the purpose of use of force, such as targeted killings.” It is expected that within 10 years, 40% of the drones will be armed, while at the same time drones are becoming more “stealthier, speedier, smaller, more lethal and operable by teams located thousands of kilometres away.”

She further elaborates that the armed drones are “perceived as largely ‘bloodless, painless, and odorless’ [technologies],” which are used to target individuals and public infrastructure. However, the use of drones and the identification of targets requires complex coordination across teams, which increases the risks of inaccuracy in use or actual misuse and make mistakes inevitable. Moreover “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.” Lastly, “the evidence continues to suggest that drone operations are also characterized by violations of the international obligation to investigate, and to punish, where applicable, those responsible for violations of international humanitarian or human rights law.  There is little public disclosure, with targeted killings by drones wrapped up in a secrecy that extends to the investigation of civilian deaths.”

The vast majority of these drone strikes “are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels,” even though “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.” Instead, Callamard argues that “war has been normalized as the legitimate and necessary companion to “peace”, not as its opposite we must do all that we can to resist.”

The Special Rapporteur addresses the lethal targeted drone strike by the United States on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in January 2020 as well. With this case study, Callamard shows how the war on terror distorts international law. In an interview with Airwars, she explained that the US killing of General Soleimani was “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” Therefore, there currently exists a “very real prospect that states may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat”.

The report ends with a list of recommendations. These recommendations include that the UN Secretary General should set up international inquiries or fact-finding missions to investigate drones’ targeted killings and that the OHCHR should produce a yearly report tracking drones’ strikes and casualties for discussion by the Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Member States should Establish a transparent multilateral process for the development of robust standards in the use of drones. States that use armed drones should robustly investigate allegations of civilians’ harms, including with external sources, and release data and findings. Moreover, States that export drones should enact stricter controls on the transfer of military and dual-use drone technology and apply clear criteria to prevent irresponsible transfers. For more recommendations and a more thorough summary of the report, please read this article of Drone Wars UK.

For coverage of the report read:

Al Jazeera: “Death by drone: How can states justify targeted killings?”,

Reuters: “U.N. expert deems U.S. drone strike on Iran’s Soleimani an ‘unlawful’ killing”,

Airwars: “New UN report insists Soleimani assassination by US was ‘unlawful’”

and the Twitter thread of Agnes Callamard.

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