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UN Launches Inquiry into Drone Killings

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UN Launches Investigation Into Drone Killings

(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; published Jan. 24, 2013)


The United Nations is launching a special inquiry into drone strikes and targeted civilian killings. The investigation's main objective is to examine evidence that the strikes cause disproportionate civilian casualties.

The United Nations' special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, said there was a need for "accountability" when strikes went wrong. Emmerson, a British lawyer, announced the inquiry at a press conference in London on Thursday.

The civilian killings and injuries that result from drone strikes on suspected terrorists will be part of the focus of the investigation. Emerson, who is heading the probe, said the rapid expansion in drone strike technology required a new legal framework to be put in place.

"The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and nonmilitary contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of an established international law," Emmerson said at a press conference.

"It is both right as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political reality, that the international community should now be focusing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development."

Specific case studies

The probe is to focus on 25 case studies of attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories.

Several countries possess armed drone technology, most notably Israel and the US government, which uses drone warfare and targeted killings as part of its military campaign against al Qaeda.

CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 3,461 people since 2004, according to Britain's Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 891 of them civilians, including 176 children.

The UN Human Rights Council asked Emerson to start an investigation following requests by countries including Pakistan, Russia and China that it look into drone attacks.

Seeking 'accountability'

Emmerson said his investigation would seek to secure "accountability and reparation where things can be shown to have gone badly wrong, with potentially grave consequences for civilians."

The 25 case studies are to be examined to see if there is "a plausible allegation of unlawful killing that should trigger the international law obligations to investigate," Emmerson said.

His report is to go to the UN General Assembly in October.

Emmerson said he did not expect the inquiry to result in a "dossier of evidence" that would directly point to legal liability, but rather would provide evidence to support the relevant states' own independent investigations. (ends)


Statement by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Concerning the Launch of an Inquiry Into the … Use of Drones (excerpt)

(Source: UN High Commissioner on Human Rights; issued Jan. 24, 2013)

The Special Rapporteur today issued the following statement at a press conference in London:

In June of last year, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a group of States, including two permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Pakistan and a number of other concerned States, made a joint statement asking me to carry out an investigation, within the framework of this mandate, into the use of drones in the context of counterterrorism operations.

I issued a statement shortly afterwards to the effect that those States using this technology, and those States on whose territory it is used, are under an international law obligation to establish effective independent and impartial investigations into any drone attack in which it is plausibly alleged that civilian casualties were sustained. I also indicated that if those States did not take steps to establish sufficiently robust and impartial investigations it may, in the final resort, be necessary for the UN to conduct investigations into individual drone strikes.

The Inquiry that I am launching today is a direct response to the requests made to me by States at the Human Rights Council last June, as well as to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAVs. The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law and it is both right as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political reality, that the international community should now be focussing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development, particularly its deployment in counterterrorism and counter-insurgency initiatives, and attempt to reach a consensus on the legality of its use, and the standards and safeguards which should apply to it.

The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay, and its use in theatres of conflict is a reality with which the world must contend. It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full statement (9 PDF pages), hosted on the Foreign Policy website.

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