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

The Overseas Operations Act, drone strikes, and the presumption of lawfulness

The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.

With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.

Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology.  Read more

New UN Special Rapporteur report on armed drones and targeted killing – its relevance for the UK

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has produced a new report on armed drones and targeted killing for the UN Human Rights Council.  The report follows up and adds to two previous reports by her predecessors which we reported on at the time here (2010) and here (2014). While reading the full report is recommended, here is our summary and how it speaks to UK drone operations.

Focused on the use of armed drones in particular for  targeted killings, the report  lambasts the silence of States and international institutions in response to the damage being done by their increasing use:

“The vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, 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. [Para 1]

Read more

New report: Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD

Click to open report

Drone Wars is today publishing ‘Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD‘. Since the beginning of air attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Operations Shader), the MoD has periodically published reports of the RAF strikes on its website. Law lecturer and member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee, Max Brookman-Byrne, has undertaken quantitative analysis of these reports and examined them in the light of international law.

The report finds that while the MoD’s attempts to be transparent in this area are to be welcomed, too often insufficient information is given. The fact that nearly half of all reports of drone strikes fail to convey sufficient information for even cursory or superficial assessments in light of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is highly concerning. It means that while the MoD’s reports provide an apparently transparent framework, in reality they fall short in this regard. Read more

The lawfulness of the drone strike against Sally Jones

By Max Brookman-Byrne, Lecturer in Law, University of LincolnReposted with permission.

Sally Jones, reportedly killed in US drone strike in June 2017

It was today revealed by various newspapers (for instance, the GuardianBBC and Mail) that Sally Jones, the so-called ‘White Widow’, has likely been killed by a targeted drone strike. Jones was described as being a member of ISIS and was apparently killed, along with her 12-year-old son, in June 2017 near the Iraq-Syria border.

As a researcher whose work for the last three and a bit years has been on the lawfulness of drone strikes, the question of whether this strike was lawful or not immediately came to mind. Jones was viewed as a member of ISIS and generally the media has uncritically reported her death, implying an assumption that the strike was lawful. But is this correct?

There is an armed conflict occurring in the situation in which Jones was Read more