New report warns drone users violating laws of war


US manufacturers call for liberalisation of export controls on drone technology

A new report, 'Drone Attacks, International Law, and the Recording of Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict', published today by London-based think tank Oxford Research Group (ORG) identifies 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.

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 (UAVs)—known as drones— that allow missiles to be fired from a control room thousands of miles away. Speaking at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Dr Susan Breau, the report's lead author 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 that authorise or agree the use of drones, as well as those who launch and control them. The legal imperative to record casualties was first analysed by Dr Susan Breau and Rachel Joyce in their 'Discussion Paper: The Legal Obligation to Record Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict'.

The new 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. The Pentagon now has 7,000 drones -- up from less than 50 in 2001 -- and the long-term consequences and benefits are yet to be determined. 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.

Questions have been previously raised by UN Special Envoys, particularly the Special Envoy for Extrajudicial Killings, about whether non-combatants (a CIA employee, for example) are covered by the laws of war (the Geneva Conventions). 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 in the UK, 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."

Meanwhile, US manufactures of drones are pressing for liberalisation of export controls on such weapons. “Countries have an insatiable appetite for drones ... and unless something changes in US policy [UAVs] will be another area where in five years we will look back and say, ‘gee we missed the boat, the US missed the boat’,” James Pitts, who heads Northrop’s Electronic Systems unit, told the Financial Times. Leaving aside questions of how the world’s largest arms exporter can be said to be ‘missing the boat’, at present US regulators routinely deny export permits for drones. This is because they fall under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal grouping of 34 countries designed to prevent the proliferation of systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Other drone manufacturing countries outside of the MTCR, such as Israel, have no such constraints on exporting their UAVs.  

In 2011 Northrop expects drones to represent about 10 percent of its $28bn total sales, although the export market could be worth $19bn over the next decade, according to industry analysts. Thus, pressure to weaken regulation of both the export and use of drones seems set to continue.