Mounting calls to end drone secrecy

IssueApril 2014
News by Gabriel Carlyle

As the European parliament votes overwhelmingly to ban ‘targeted killings’ and fully autonomous drones, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism has called on the US, UK and Israel – the three states currently known to be using armed drones – ‘to disclose the results of any fact-finding inquiries into [30 specific drone strikes in which civilians appear either to have been killed or had their lives put at immediate risk] or to explain why no such inquiries have been made’.

The 30 strikes were chosen because there was either ‘a plausible indication that civilians were killed or sustained life-threatening injuries’ or that ‘civilian lives were put at immediate risk’. The choice was intended to be ‘illustrative rather than exhaustive’.

At least 262 civilians appear to have been killed in these strikes, which span 2008-2013 and include attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Gaza.

Landslide vote

On 27 February, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly (90 percent for, 8 percent against, with only 2% of the 593 members present abstaining) to: ‘ ban the practice of extrajudicial targeted killings’; ‘ensure that the Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states’; ‘include armed drones in relevant European and international disarmament and arms control regimes’; and ‘ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention.’

Reinforcing earlier polling data suggesting that UK public opinion on drones is out of step with the majority of world opinion (see PN 2547-48), support for the resolution among UK MEPs was significantly lower than in the parliament as a whole, with only 56% of those present voting in favour, and 36% voting against.

All but one of the latter votes was cast by a member of the right-wing European conservatives and reformists group.

Significantly, the resolution, which had been sponsored by the Green group of MEPs, also called on the EU ‘to promote greater transparency and accountability on the part of third countries in the use of armed drones’.

Detailed public explanations

On 28 February, UN rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC published his third and final report into the impact of drone strikes on civilians.In it, he reiterated his earlier conclusion that: ‘in any case in which there have been, or appear to have been, civilian casualties that were not anticipated when the attack was planned, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation of the results’.

To date, Emmerson notes, there exists only ‘one instance’ in which the US has ‘made public significant parts of an investigation report into a strike in which civilian casualties were sustained in Afghanistan’. One better than for the UK.

While only one of the 30 cited cases – a 25 March 2011 strike on two vehicles in Helmand province, in which two women and two children are believed to have been killed – involves the UK, this probably says more about the intense secrecy in which UK drone strikes are shrouded, than any greater measure of care exercised by the RAF (see PN 2566). Thus far to no avail, Emmerson has called on the UK to ‘declassify and publish’ the result of NATO’s investigation into the killings.

Meanwhile, in February, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the UK had received its final five armed Reaper drones from General Atomics and would be transporting them into theatre ‘in the near future’. This will bring to 10 the number of UK Reapers in Afghanistan, where they are ‘expected to remain... following the cessation of combat operations at the end of 2014’.