UN: Covert drone programme “undermines the rule of law and may threaten international security”

October 17, 2013

Image of drones

A new report by a United Nations expert has warned that the US’ secretive drone programme threatens international security due to a “lack of appropriate transparency and accountability.”

The report on ‘Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,’ by Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, also warns that so-called ‘signature strikes,’ based upon insufficient information are “clearly unlawful,” and condemns the practice of follow-up attacks on rescuers as a “war crime.”

Mr Heyns demands greater openness from the US Government, stating that there should be “at least a preliminary investigation” into any drone strike where there is reason to believe violations of international law may have taken place, and says that “Civilian casualties must be determined and should be disclosed.”

In a clear criticism of the shadowy drone programme carried out by the CIA and Special Forces, which has never been officially acknowledged by the US Government, he warns that “A lack of appropriate transparency and accountability concerning the deployment of drones undermines the rule of law and may threaten international security.”

Mr Heyns also emphasises the heavy toll that drones take on those civilians living in the areas where the strikes are carried out – and cautions against taking at face value the claims that those they kill are necessarily ‘terrorists,’ stating that:

“Drones come from the sky, but leave the heavy footprint of war on the communities that they target. The claims that drones are more precise in targeting cannot be accepted uncritically, not least because terms such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘militant’ are sometimes used to describe people who are in truth protected civilians.”

The report has been submitted to the UN General Assembly, ahead of a debate on the issue on October 25.

Commenting, Kat Craig, Legal Director at human rights charity Reprieve, which represents a number of civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, said: “This report rightly states that the US’ secretive drone war is a danger not only to innocent civilians on the ground but also to international security as a whole.   The CIA’s campaign must be brought out of the shadows:  we need to see real accountability for the hundreds of civilians who have been killed – and justice for their relatives.  Among Reprieve’s clients are young Pakistani children who saw their grandmother killed in front of them – the CIA must not be allowed to continue to smear these people as ‘terrorists.’”


Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 553 8166 / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk

2. The report can be viewed in full here: http://justsecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/UN-Special-Rapporteur-Extrajudicial-Christof-Heyns-Report-Drones.pdf

The specific quotes referenced above can be found at paragraphs 72-3 (signature and follow-up strikes), 75 (toll on communities), 97 (transparency and the rule of law), and 101 (disclosure of civilian casualties).