Investigate Drone Strike says new UN Special Rapporteur

SOURCE: Reuters – by Patrick Worsnip


Christof Heyns

A U.N. investigator called on the world body on Friday to set up a panel to study the ethics and legality of unmanned military weapons — an apparent reference to U.S.  drones that strike suspected Islamist militants.

In a report to the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee, Christof Heyns said such systems raised “serious concerns that have been almost entirely unexamined by human rights or humanitarian actors.”

“The international community urgently needs to address the legal, political, ethical and moral implications of the development of lethal robotic technologies,” said Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

It was the second time this year U.N. experts tackled the issue. In June, Heyns’ predecessor, Philip Alston, called for a halt to CIA-directed drone strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying killings ordered far from the battlefield could lead to a “Playstation” mentality.

The CIA contested Alston’s findings, saying — without confirming it carried out the strikes — that its operations “unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight.”

But Heyns, a South African law professor, said there was a need to discuss responsibility for civilian casualties, how to ensure the use of robots complied with humanitarian law, and standards for developing the technology involved.

Saying the United Nations should take a lead, he urged Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convene a group of national representatives, human rights experts, philosophers, scientists and developers to promote a debate on the legal and moral implications of robotic weapons.

The group should discuss the challenges the weapons posed and how the technologies could be used “to promote more effective compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law,” he said.

Among the issues it should study was “the fundamental question of whether lethal force should ever be permitted to be fully automated,” he added.

Heyns’ statement to the U.N. committee did not name any country, weapon system or target in its discussion of robotic technologies.

Under President Barack Obama, the CIA has stepped up drone strikes in the tribal zone of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, targeting high-level al Qaeda and Taliban figures as well as largely unknown foot soldiers.

But Alston’s June report said the United States was just one of 40 countries with drone technology. He named Britain, China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey as also having or seeking the capacity to fire missiles from drones.

My letter on armed drones

The Guardian has published my letter in response to the Philip Alston report calling for similar scrutiny of the British use of armed drones.

Philip Alston’s report to the UN human rights council (Report, 4 June) on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan raises issues of extreme concern for those who are just as worried about the UK’s use of armed drones in Afghanistan. The UK has launched attacks using armed drones over 80 times since May 2008, yet all requests for information on the circumstances of the use of British drones and resulting civilian casualty figures have so far been refused. The “Playstation mentality” reported by Alston is not confined to the CIA. A US military inquiry into the deaths of 27 Afghan civilians following a Nato attack in February reported this week that drone operators had downplayed information that civilians were in the attacked convoy. It seems reasonable to conclude that British drone operators, too, are susceptible to the reality that, from thousands of miles away, launching weapons at a blip on a video screen makes the choice to kill far too easy. We once again call on the government to release details of the circumstances in which armed drones are being used by British forces.

Chris Cole

Director, Fellowship of Reconciliation

UN Drone report coverage

There has generally been good coverage of Philip Alston’s measured and detailed report on the use of the use of armed drones for targetted killings, see for example The Guardian coverage and The Washington Post.    Predictably though the report has come under attack from the more gung-ho elelemts of the media with the Daily Telegraph’s foriegn news editor calling Alston ignorant in his blog response: Drone Pilots Have Feelings Too.

Philip Alston Report to UN Human Rights Council

Philip Alston

The much-anticipated report from Philip Alston, the UN’s special representative on extrajudicial execution on the use of armed drones for targeted killings is now available. Philip Alston’s report to the UN Human Rights Council will undoubtably cause much controversy over the coming days and weeks.  Alston is a known critic of the use of drone to kill alleged terrorists, particularly the use of by the CIA of drones in Pakistan.   While this report will no doubt focus on the American use of drones,  the release of information on the British use of drones following an FoI request by the Fellowship of Reconciliation caused Alston to call on the UK government to abide by international law.   No doubt there will be more on this report over the next few days.