Those who use drones have ‘legal obligation’ to report who they killed

By staff writers
June 23, 2011

International lawyers have identified an existing but previously unacknowledged requirement in law for those who use or authorise the use of drone strikes to record and announce who has been killed and injured in each attack.

The finding is contained in a new report, 'Drone Attacks, International Law, and the Recording of Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict', published today (23 June) by London-based think tank Oxford Research Group (ORG).

It accompanied a call for a global system to record casualties – including civilians.

Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, that allow bombs and missiles to be fired from a control room thousands of miles away. UK drones are fired in Afghanistan by operators just outside Las Vegas.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), a Christian NGO, has been amongst many campaigners urging the UK government to publish information about the use of drones and the causalities involved.

Conservative estimates suggest that US drones in Pakistan kill one civilian for every two combatants, but the Ministry of Defence has previously refused to release any figures about the UK's own drones.

Speaking at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Dr Susan Breau, the lead author of the new report and Professor of International Law at Flinders University, said: "It is high time to implement a global casualty recording mechanism which includes civilians so that finally every casualty of every conflict is identified. The law requires it, and drones provide no exemption from that requirement."

The report found a legal requirement to identify all casualties that result from any drone use, under any and all circumstances. It suggested the responsibility to properly record casualties also extended to states who authorise or agree the use of drones, as well as those who launch and control them.

The report also provides a set of specific recommendations addressing the current situation in Pakistan and Yemen, where the issue of drone strikes by the United States and the recording of their casualties is of real and practical urgency. According to the report, while legal duties fall upon all the parties mentioned, it is the United States (as the launcher and controller of drones) which has least justification to shirk its responsibilities.

Elaborating on the report's implications, Dr Breau said: "States, individually and collectively, need to plan how to work towards conformance with these substantial bodies of law. Members of civil society, particularly those that seek the welfare of the victims of conflict, have a new opportunity to press states towards fulfilling their obligations under law.

"This is not asking for the impossible. The killing of Osama Bin Laden suggests the lengths to which states will go to confirm their targets when they believe this to be in their own interest. Had the political stakes in avoiding mistaken or disputed identity not been so high, Bin Laden (and whoever else was in his home) would almost certainly have been typical candidates for a drone attack."

Commenting on the report, Paul Rogers, ORG's Consultant on Global Security and Professor at Bradford University Peace Studies Department, said: "Armed drones are fast becoming the weapons of choice by the United States and its allies in South Asia and the Middle East, yet their use raises major questions about legality which have been very largely ignored. A key and salutary finding of this report is that drone users cannot escape a legal responsibility to expose the human consequences of their attacks. This hugely important and detailed analysis addresses some of the most significant issues involved and deserves the widest coverage, not least in military, legal and political circles."

Drone use has risen sharply since 2001. The UK government has deployed three Reaper drones in Afghanistan, while other drones intended for UK forces are in development by BAE Systems. The UK also rents Hermes 450 drones from Israel on a 'pay-by-the-hour' basis.

In July 2010, leaked government documents revealed that the British Reaper drone had by that point been fired 97 times in Afghanistan.

The US budget allocation for drones increased from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $4.2 billion in 2010.

Eyewitness reports suggest that drones were used extensively by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2009.

You can view the full report here:


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