Pandora’s Box: Reflecting on 20 years of drone targeted killing

Online webinar: 3 November 2022, 7pm (GMT)

November 3rd this year will mark 20 years since a remotely-controlled drone was first used to carry out an extra-judicial killing ‘beyond the battlefield’. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time a drone had been used to hunt down and kill specific individuals in a country in which the US was not at war.

Since then, an untold number of such operations have taken place across the globe with a significant number of such strikes also causing serious civilian casualties.  Despite huge controversy the United States continues to engage in such killings (even while arguing publicly such actions are ‘limited‘) and the practise has now spread amongst other drone operators including the UK, France and Turkey.

In this important online webinar, Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings, to offer some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.

 

Speakers:

  • Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
  • Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
  • Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
  • Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan

Chair:  Chris Cole, Director, Drone Wars UK

 

Tickets for the webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

 

See also  ‘Twenty years of drone targeted killing

A deadly legacy: 20 years of drone targeted killing

On the 3rd November 2002,  a US Predator drone targeted and killed Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, a Yemeni member of al-Qaeda who the CIA believed responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 US sailors were killed. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time the technology had been used to hunt down and kill a specific individual in a country in which the US was not at war – ‘beyond the battlefield’ as it has become euphemistically known. Since then, numerous US targeted killings have taken place in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, while other states who have acquired the technology – including the UK – have also carried out such strikes.

At first, the notion of remotely targeting and killing suspects outside of the battlefield and without due process was shocking to legal experts, politicians and the press.  In an armed conflict where international humanitarian law (the Laws of War) apply, such strikes can be lawful.  However, outside of the battlefield, where killing of suspects is only accepted in order to prevent imminent loss of life, such killings are almost certainly unlawful. Indeed in early reporting on the first such attack 20 years ago, journalists noted that the US State Department has condemned targeted killing of suspects by Israel (see article below).

New York Times, 6 November, 2002. Click to see original.

However, the US argued – and continues to argue today – that its targeted killings are lawful.  It has put forward a number of arguments over the years which are seriously questioned by other states and international law experts.  These include  the notion that whenever and wherever that US undertakes military action international humanitarian law applies; that because states where the US engages in such strikes are ‘unable or unwilling’ to apprehend suspects its lethal actions are lawful; and that there should be greater ‘flexibility’ in interpreting the notion of  ‘imminence’ in relation to last resort.

Here are a small sample of drone targeted killing operations undertaken by the US and others.

November 3, 2002, US drone strike on a vehicle in Marib province, Yemen. 
  • Target: Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi

The first drone targeted killing saw a CIA Predator drone operating out of Djibouti launch two missiles at a vehicle travelling through the desert in Marib province, Yemen. The drone’s target was ostensibly al-Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, said by the US to be behind the lethal attack on the USS Cole two years previously.  However, also in the vehicle was  US citizen Kemal Darwish and four other men, all believed to be members of al-Qaeda.  As Chris Woods wrote in 2012, “The way had been cleared for the killings months earlier, when President Bush lifted a 25-year ban on US assassinations just after 9/11. [Bush] wrote that ‘George Tenet proposed that I grant broader authority for covert actions, including permission for the CIA to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives without asking for my sign-off each time. I decided to grant the request.’”

Online webinar: Pandora’s box: 20 years of drone targeted killing

Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings by offering some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.

  • Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
  • Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
  • Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
  • Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan
  • (Chair)  Chris Cole, Director, Drone Wars UK

Tickets for this online webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

Read more

Public consultation on allowing armed drones to fly from RAF Waddington opened – have your say!

Above us only….drones?

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has formally opened a public consultation on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) proposal to change airspace regulations around RAF Waddington to allow armed Protector drones to operate from the base from 2023. In short, these changes will put in place  a ‘danger area’ around Waddington to allow the drones to take-off and land.

Currently the UK’s fleet of armed Reaper drones are not permitted to fly within the UK as they were not built to appropriate standards.  However the MoD argues that its new drone – called SkyGuardian by the manufacturer but labelled ‘Protector’ by the MoD – has been built to stricter construction standards that should allow it to be certified to fly within UK airspace. Separate from the construction issue is the very significant question as to whether large drones (military or otherwise) can fly safely in airspace alongside other aircraft. Drone advocates argue this can be done though using electronic ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment but this is as yet largely untried and untested.

Map of potentially affected area from CAA website

While this consultation is therefore limited in that it is focuses only on specific airspace changes around Waddington rather than wider questions about the safety of opening UK airspace to large drones, we would urge those concerned about these developments to respond via the dedicated webpage.  All members of the public are invited to respond and it should only take a few minutes.  The consultation is open until 30 November.  Read more

EU borders agency must improve information access arrangements following complaint by Drone Wars UK

The European Ombudsman has ruled that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, should reform its access to information arrangements following complaints about difficulties in obtaining information made by Drone Wars UK and German open government platform FragDenStaat.

The Ombudsman’s ruling follows a two year investigation which examined how Frontex deals with requests for public access to documents, and particularly requests submitted by email and through civil society access to information websites such as FragDenStaat and AskTheUK.org.  At present Frontex only accepts communications through its own difficult-to-use communication portal and  refuses to communicate by e-mail or third party information access websites – a complicated and unnecessary hurdle for anyone seeking information about the organisation.

As well as investigating the portal requirement and the ability to submit and to receive documents by e-mail the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly also inquired into concerns about restrictions imposed by the copyright of Frontex documents, long-term accessibility of documents through the portal, and Frontex’s requirement for those requesting information to submit personal identification and the lack of routes to allow this.

Border Drones

Drone Wars UK submitted an information request to Frontex in July 2020 as part of our ‘Crossing A Line‘ investigation, in which we highlighted the growing use of drones for border control operations and the threats to human rights which this poses.  Read more

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri:  the tip of the targeted killing iceberg

President Biden announcing the targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Drone assassination returned briefly to the top of the news agenda this week with the US targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Many could be forgiven for thinking this was the first drone targeted killing since the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but behind the scenes the use of drones for these type of operations is growing – and spreading.

Over-the-Horizon

The strike on Zawahiri, which took place early on Sunday morning (31 July) in Afghanistan, was announced by President Biden on Monday evening.  US officials speaking to journalists on background said that the strike was carried out by the CIA after Zawahiri’s location was discovered earlier in the year. US officials insisted that he was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although multiple international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.

The strike comes almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and, within the US at least, reporting of the targeted killing played out against continuing political arguments around whether the withdrawal has harmed or improved US interests/security in the region.  Biden argues that his ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy – that is remote drone strikes with ‘in-and-out’ special ops raids as necessary – instead of long-term deployments, improves US security.

Many early responses to the killing were quick to affirm the efficacy of drone strikes and this strategy. Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the original withdrawal agreement, told the New York Times “In this case, over the horizon worked.” He called the strike proof that “we can protect our interest against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there.”  Elsewhere, the liberal think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft also claimed that such strikes ‘work’ insisting that they were “a more sustainable form of risk management” than long-term occupation (although, to be fair, they did argue that such a position “should not be conflated with the unhinged permissiveness of past drone wars”).   However, whether such strikes ‘work’ by increasing peace and security in the long-term, is still  very questionable.  The reality is that the drone warfare has its own logic and momentum, and its increasingly clear just how hard it has become to put this tool back in Pandora’s boxRead more

UK Government release ‘Drone Ambition Statement’ to renew push to open UK skies to drones

Amidst the hoopla of the Farnborough Airshow last week, the Government launched what it described  as it’s ‘Drone Ambition Statement’.  However, ‘Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK’ is in reality, a hodgepodge of previous announced policies, ‘refreshed’ statistics and pleas to business and regulators to ‘get on with it’.  The frustration in the document – both with the public’s scepticism about the benefit of drones and the regulators hesitance on safety grounds to throw open the skies to drones – is palpable.

Fantasy Figures

Underpinning the government’s push to open UK skies to drones is the belief  that it will bring huge financial benefit to the UK.  A 2018 report from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) sought to put a figure to this conviction and came up with the suggestion that drones ‘could’ give a £42bn “uplift” to the UK economy by 2030. While this figure has been quoted so many times in the media that its now almost taken as fact, in reality it is basically guess work.

As part of this renewed push on drones, the government asked PWC to update its report (hence, Skies Without Limits v2.0) and the consultants now suggests that by 2030 drones could contribute up to £45bn to the UK economy. However as PWC makes clear, this figures is dependent on “best case adoption” and notes that “many challenges must be addressed to unlock this potential estimate.”  Indeed.  These ‘challenges’ include developing the necessary technology to allow many more drones to fly within UK airspace –  and in particular, to allow them to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS); putting in place a new regulatory framework that would allow drones to fly alongside crewed aircraft; and finally changing the public’s negative perception of drones.  Read more