Key members of the United Nations – including some of Washington’s closest allies – broke with a decade of tradition on Friday when they endorsed calls for greater transparency over drone civilian deaths.
The European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland were joined by the Russian Federation and China in calling for greater openness from those carrying out drone strikes. Pakistan was particularly strident, insisting that there was ‘no implicit or explicit consent’ for US drone strikes on its territory, which it insists have a ‘disastrous humanitarian impact.’ In previous debates states had refused to support similar calls for greater transparency.
The nations were responding to a pair of reports delivered to a busy session of the General Assembly in New York by special rapporteurs Ben Emmerson QC and Professor Christof Heyns. The studies, announced a year ago in London, are part of an ongoing UN investigation into the legal and ethical problems posed by the use of armed drones – especially in non-conventional conflicts.
The United States, one of only three nations which presently uses armed drones, also indicated that it will continue to co-operate with the UN’s inquiry. So too did the UK. Only Israel - which has suspended its involvement with the UN’s Human Rights Council – has so far failed to engage.
Heyns, as UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, stressed that existing international law should be sufficient to provide an adequate framework for managing strikes: ‘The drone should follow the law, not the law follow the drone,’ he told member nations.
The issue was not the law but how drones were sometimes used, Heyns said: ‘Armed drones are not illegal, but as lethal weapons they may be easily abused and lead to unlawful loss of life, if used inappropriately.
‘States must be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of armed drones. They must publicly disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, operational responsibility, criteria for targeting, impact (including civilian casualties), and information about alleged violations, investigations and prosecutions,’ his report notes.
The South African professor of law also expressed concern that an increased reliance on drone strikes by nations risked a decreased emphasis on diplomacy, and on law and order operations.
Heyns once again raised the issue of possible war crimes in relation to the deliberate targeting of civilians with drones, saying there was an ‘obligation’ on member states to investigate such instances.
That appeared to be a reference to the now well-reported US practice of deliberately targeting first responders at the scene of an original drone attack. Earlier this week, Amnesty International became the latest organisation to produce evidence of so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes in Pakistan. Findings of similar attacks have been reported by the Bureau, by legal charityReprieve and by Stanford and New York university law schools.
In his own report to the UN, British barrister Ben Emmerson –the rapporteur for counter terrorism and human rights -repeatedly emphasised what he described as the obligation of states to properly investigate credible reports of civilian deaths.
‘The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, he said. ‘In any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been killed, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation.’ It was that call for transparency which other member states then endorsed.
Emmerson was also keen to stress that his study is interim. A team of legal investigators based in London has also been examining 33 problematic drone strikes carried out by the United States, Israel and the UK, which raise significant concerns regarding legality, civilian deaths or possible war crimes. As Emmerson told a later press conference: ‘The really difficult part of the process is this next stage,’ when the three countries will be asked to comment in detail on individual strikes. That final report is expected in 2014.
Responding in the General Assembly to Heyns’ report and comments, the US was careful not to imply that it accepted any definition of its own drone strikes as ‘extrajudicial killings’, actions it condemned outright. However, the US surprised some observers by indicating that it intends to continue co-operation with Emmerson’s ongoing investigation.
The two rapporteurs also spoke at a panel discussion at the UN’s Manhattan building. They were joined by a former US drone operator, along with academics and human rights investigators. A short film, prepared by Forensic Architects, showed in Emmerson’s words ‘an indication of the potential to mount investigations’ into problematic strikes. ‘With enough effort and political will it can be done,’ he insisted. ‘I refuse to give up trying to obtain that co-operation.’
In a late addition to the panel, former US Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant also endorsed calls for drone strike transparency and accountability. He said that his own misgivings about some US actions came about after he was ‘party to the violation of the constitutional rights of a US citizen.’ This, he said, was despite his having sworn an oath to uphold the same Constitution when he joined the military.
Friday’s UN presentations came at the end of a week of reports covering aspects of the ongoing secret US drone war. After the weekend release of a major study into Yemen drone strikes bySwiss NGO Alkarama, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch followed with their own damning reports into recent US drone axctivity in Yemen and P
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also told President Obama on a visit to Washington DC that drone strikes on his country had to stop. The impact of that call was muted by a leaked story in the Washington Post later that day, insinuating that Pakistan may still give its tacit consent to US drone strikes. In contrast Emmerson’s UN report states that whilst there is ‘strong evidence’ that Pakistan previously allowed US strikes on its territory, any such consent had been removed by April 2012 at the latest.
He also insisted that any side-deals cut between the US and Pakistan’s military or intelligence services had no validity:‘The democratically elected Government is the body responsible for Pakistani international relations and the sole entity able to express the will of the State in its international affairs,’ Emmerson writes.
Although Friday’s UN presentations appeared to make a reasonable impact, this was not the first time that the General Assembly had debated the issue of drone strikes. In 2010 former UN special rapporteur Philip Alston also presented a report to the UN, and some of his recommendations are being repeated by Emmerson and Heyns.
The Bureau asked the present rapporteurs whether anything had changed in the intervening three years. Heyns said he believed that nations are now ready to ‘take stock’ of the use of armed drones, particularly given the potential for their proliferation. And noting that the European Union and others have now explicitly lined up behind calls for transparency, Ben Emmerson said that there was a far deeper public awareness of the impact of armed drones.
He also noted that alongside Washington’s co-operation with the investigation to date, CIA director John Brennan has indicated he would like to see US civilian drone casualty data published. ‘I am optimistic, and refuse to limit my expectations,’ Emmerson told assembled journalists.
Chris Woods is a freelance investigative reporter whose work with the Bureau on US covert drone strikes recently won the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize. His book on the pivotal role of armed drones in the War on Terror, Sudden Justice, is published next year.