The UN Special Rapporteur’s report on armed drones and targeted killing

In the UK Defence Journal, George Allison reviews a new report on armed drones and targeted killing for the UN Human Rights Council produced by  Agnes Callamard (right), the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

She outlined recommendations to address this issue in the report she presented on July 10th at the Human Rights Council, warning: “The mere existence of armed drones does not justify their indiscriminate deployment. However, to date, there are no robust standards governing drones’ development, proliferation, export, or capability for use of force. No transparency. No effective oversight. No accountability”.

An article by Chris Cole points out that the report addresses what has now become a real problem here in the UK with the refusal of our government to detail where it is now deploying armed drones  – the absence of transparency and accountability (see for example: ‘Ministers refuse to reveal target of new RAF killer drone missions‘)

Agnes Callamard said that while deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects such as schools, hospitals and ambulances in Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Yemen and Libya show the tragic disregard of the most essential humanitarian principles, the consequences of targeted killings by armed drones have been relatively neglected by states and institutions.

In 2013, then Special Rapporteur Christoff Heyns warned that ‘the expansive use of armed drones by the first States to acquire them, if not challenged, can do structural damage to the cornerstones of international security and set precedents that undermine the protection of life across the globe in the longer term’ “.

Seven years later, Ms Callamard says that the world has now entered what has been called the “second drone age”

Against this backdrop the report seeks to update previous findings:

  • interrogating the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises;
  • questioning the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized;
  • and identifying the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings.

A vast array of State and non-State actors are now deploying ever more advanced drone technologies making their use an international security issue and raising key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts and so-called peace situations.

For the first time, in January 2020, a State armed drone killed a high-level official of a foreign state on the territory of a third one – a significant development and an escalation.

Remains of General Soleimani’s vehicle, which was targeted in a US drone strike, at the Baghdad International Airport

The report contains findings applicable to all forms of targeted killings, including targeted killings carried out by conventional means – e.g. Special Operations Forces. General Soleimani’s targeted killing in January 2020 is analysed in Annex One.

It is the first known incident in which a State invoked self-defence as a justification for an attack against a State-actor, in the territory of another state, thus implicating the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. The report finds that by killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.

The New York Times reports that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the U.S. rejected her report and “opinions”: “Ms. Callamard’s conclusions are spurious. The strike that killed Gen. Soleimani was in response to an escalating series of armed attacks in preceding months by the Islamic Republic of Iran and militias it supports on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East region.”

Fox News presents a videoed summary quoting the report and Pompeo’s reaction.

Agnes Callamard ends by saying that this heavy toll of unlawful deaths and arbitrary killings, reveals the serious failures of national and international institutions mandated to protect human rights, democracy, peace and security and makes a number of recommendations which may be read in the report here:





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Sign of hope? Senate’s Iran War Powers resolution ‘sends a shot’ across Trump’s bow

The New European asks: “What might Trump do with a new generation of autonomous drones in a second term, with no fear of censure by voters or sanction by other arms of the US government?”

Its journalists, Fred Harter and Giles Whittell, point out that there are there no internationally agreed rules to stay his hand, or those of other contenders in the AI-driven arms race – Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and the UK anyone else’s. They focus on the June experiment undertsken from Fort Benning a US army base in Georgia.

In his first two years in office Donald Trump authorised more than 240 strikes and last year he rescinded an executive order signed by Obama that required the CIA to publish an annual total of civilian drone strike casualties in non-combat zones.

CNN now reports that the Senate passed an Iran War Powers resolution on Thursday 13th February aiming to rein in his ability to use military action against Iran without congressional approval.

The President had warned the Senate not to green-light the measure on Wednesday, tweeting that “it is very important for our country’s security that the United States Senate not vote for the Iran War Powers Resolution,” and adding, “If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day.” The White House also issued a veto threat against it.

The resolution “directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces for hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran or any part of its government or military, unless explicitly authorized by a declaration of war or specific authorization for use of military force against Iran.” It includes a provision stating that no part of the resolution “shall be construed to prevent the United States from defending itself from imminent attack.”

The resolution – prime mover Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia – won bipartisan support. Several Republican senators, including Lee, Paul and Collins, signed on as co-sponsors. The vote was 55-45. Eight Republicans voted in favour.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who warned two years ago that Congress would have to give approval before more troops could be sent to Afghanistan, said that the Senate is sending a warning to the White House that even if the President vetoes the measure:

“It sends a shot across his bow . . .”





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Seek accountability for the deaths of service personnel AND of the innocent men, women and children unwittingly caught up in wars the west has chosen to fight

For many years, ordinary men, women and children, at work at home and at school or in hospital are being killed in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other countries, ignored by the mainstream ‘news’ media which prefers to feed the public with trivia about the Royal family and celebrities often featured in the Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’ (short section, right).

Ten years ago AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH described the statistics for civilian deaths caused by pro-Government forces in Afghanistan as ‘simply appalling’:

“UN figures show that between January 2006-October 2009 2,139 civilians died in such circumstances (which is over 50% of the total killed by insurgents during the same period!). The number injured by NATO and its allies is not recorded, though it is likely to considerably outweigh the numbers of those killed”.

The author, Steve Beauchampé, pointed out that whilst fatalities and injuries amongst NATO forces are assiduously compiled and regularly reported in the British media, the coalition does not appear concerned enough to monitor the number of civilians they kill.

These deaths and injuries are ‘diminished and dismissed as collateral damage, the inevitable consequences of war’.

Many are killed by missile strikes; weapons launched from fighter planes, or increasingly from unmanned ‘Drone’ aircraft, the person who terminated or shattered their lives being safely ensconced in front of a computer screen in a US military base 8,000 miles away in Nevada, never seeing or hearing their mutilated victims or the effects of their actions, driving home to their family once their working day is over.

Nowhere is the description of the management of modern warfare better illustrated than in Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright’s account of his two months spent with US Marines during the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 shows graphically how there are both competent and incompetent soldiers at all levels of the military hierarchy. Some were fearless and heroic, a credit to their country, some were way out of their depth, yet their judgments often meant the difference between life and death for those Iraqi civilians they encountered.

In Iraq as a whole, a substantial number of civilians (more than the current total for Afghanistan) perished at the hands of the very people who claimed to be their liberators.

Yet it seems few people of importance or influence in the west take the situation anything like seriously enough – certainly not politicians, newspaper editors nor radio or television news producers. Indeed one of the US’s first acts after invading Iraq was to arrange for the interim government they installed to grant immunity from prosecution for American military personnel for atrocities, including:

  • families executed in cars when the driver failed to stop quickly enough at checkpoints;
  • wedding parties blown up following inaccurate intelligence reports,
  • houses, bomb shelters, educational establishments and even hospitals blasted to kingdom come

Civilian casualties are always high in military conflicts (usually higher than those suffered by the armed forces) and NATO‘s record is no worse than that of other armies in this regard. But there must be a line of accountability, especially in a world where those responsible for the killings claim such technical superiority and absolute moral authority.

If we can hold inquiries and apportion blame over the deaths of British service personnel then the least we can do is seek accountability for the killings by NATO forces of those innocent men, women and children unwittingly caught up in wars that the west chose to fight.

Or do their lives count for less?





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A German court has taken the first step to ensure a degree of accountability for unlawful US drone strikes

Will UKItaly, and the Netherlands follow suit?

In March 2019, the Higher Administrative Court of North Rhine-Westphalia in Münster heard lawyers representing Faisal bin ali Jaber (right), a Yemeni engineer and two relatives in their case against the Federal Republic of Germany.

Their brother-in-law and nephew had been killed in a U.S. drone strike whilst attending a family wedding on February 2012 in a region where people have been targeted and killed by armed US drones for several years – the numbers in official statements and media reporting differing greatly.

Their lawyers argued that the USA’s use of Ramstein Air Base is in violation of international law – and that allowing U.S. bases on German territory to support such drone strikes violates the German constitution: (Article 24 [Transfer of sovereign powers – System of collective security] & Article 26 [Securing international peace]. It also violates Germany’s Status of Forces Agreements with NATO, under which U.S. forces are granted the right to operate on its territory while respecting German law.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), one of the NGOs supporting the claimants in the case of Faisal bin Ali Jaber and others, has translated the report of the judgment given.

In its decision, the Court acknowledged that Faisal and his family “are justified in fearing risks to life and limb from US drone strikes that use Ramstein Air base in violation of International Law”. Ramstein Air base provides the satellite relay infrastructure without which drone strikes wouldn’t be possible. It ruled that there was “clear factual evidence” that the base in Ramstein was being used for missions that violated international law.

It went on to state that there were “weighty indicators to suggest that at least part of the US armed drone strikes…in Yemen are not compatible with international law and that plaintiffs’ right to life is therefore unlawfully compromised.” The Senate of the Higher Administrative ruled on March 19th that the German Government must do more to ensure its territory is not used by the US to carry out unlawful US drone strikes in Yemen.

The Court concluded that – though the US has, in some cases, breached international law – it will not prohibit the use of Ramstein Air Base for drone operations. It will, however, be obliged to “assure itself, on the basis of the legal assessment by the Senate, that the general practice of US drone operations in the plaintiffs’ home region in Yemen (in so far as facilities in Germany are used) is in accordance with the applicable international law”.

As Faisal bin ali Jaber said: “Losing innocent family members, by mistake, to a US drone strike is something that no one should have to go through”.

He said that the US drone programme could not function without support from European countries like Germany and the UK. adding: “It is long past time these Governments stepped up to prevent more innocent people being killed by US drones.” 

The German government has decided to appeal against the ruling and the Germany’s supreme administrative court in Leipzig will deliver the final judgment.

LAWFARE reports on the hope expressed by human rights organizations that the Yemeni decision will prompt similar litigation in the UKItaly and the Netherlands—all of which support the U.S. drone program by sharing intelligence or allowing the operation of bases.





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For news of British involvement in drone warfare and technical developments go to For further up-to-date information on casualties inflicted by air-strikes go to the site of

See news of attacks in several countries including Somalia

and Afghanistan









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Drone-related arms control treaties fail to prevent proliferation in the Middle East

As concerns rise about increasing the domestic use of drones for surveillance or commercial purposes, risking terrorism, accidents due to inclement weather and mid-air collisions, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank engaged in defence and security research, reports on the growing use of drone ‘swarms’ in the Middle East.

Alexander Balas (RUSI) cites indicators such as the recent UAV strikes against Saudi infrastructure and the shooting down of a US drone in the Persian Gulf region.

When the US developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle in the 1990s, multilateral arms control agreements, such as the Missile Treaty Control Regime, adopted drone-related measures similar to those proved effective during the Cold War: particularly export controls covering UAVs and their components which 35 member states agreed to implement nationally.

RUSI reports that Israel was previously a high-end global supplier and leader in UAV technology innovation, the US severely restricted foreign sales and the quickly growing supply of Chinese multi-role strike capable UAVs has since transformed regional UAV numbers and capabilities.

But the New York, Carnegie-funded China Power Project points out that in terms of total UAV sales, China lags behind the US which has sold 351 drones to partners around the world since 2008, followed by Israel’s 186 UAV exports.

drone swarm

The first recorded swarm drone attack in 2018 was only one of the recent instances which have marked the ‘breakout’ of UAVs which only a few years ago had been the preserve of just three states: the US, Israel and the UK. But Middle Eastern players such as Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Hizbullah and Hamas are emerging as key UAV operators.

A few examples since 2018 illustrate this:

  • January 2018 – first recorded and tactically effective swarm drone attack, in Syria.
  • March 2018 – Chinese-made UAV used to kill a key moderate prior to Yemen UN talks.
  • Various UAV incursions into Israel and strikes on Iran’s Syrian drone infrastructure, following drone attacked thought to be Iranian-backed .
  • Regional UAV forces operating from 2018 in support of different Libyan proxies.
  • Up to May 2019 – Houthi UAV operations against diverse military and civilian targets.

The three retrieved drones involved in the first attack were described as homemade and quite rudimentary. but the GPS guidance system, improvised explosives and rockets appeared to be of advanced manufacture. Their estimated attack range was up to 100 km, far greater than most homemade and commercial off-the-shelf drones.

Technical features of Qasef-1, the drones used by the Houthis, were listed here in 2018. In January this year a video issued by the AP Archive (requires registration) noted that Iran – without offering evidence – has been accused by the US and the UN of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis. Tehran has denied the accusation, but a United Nations expert panel on Yemen issued a report in 2018 noting that the Houthi’s Qasef-1 drone “is virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries” which can deliver up to a 45-kilogram warhead up to 150 kilometres away.

The Middle East is described in the RUSI article as ‘the globe’s thriving lethal laboratory in which UAV technology (is being developed) in contravention of relevant arms control measures’ and searches reveal that the countries responsible for this proliferation, include USA, Russia, Iran, China and Israel.






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Lest we forget: the killing continues – friendly and unfriendly fire

VOA, part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the government funded agency that oversees all non-military, U.S. international broadcasting, reported on 7th June that the United Nations is demanding an immediate end to indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria, warning the warring parties their actions might amount to war crimes.

Agencies confirm at least 160 civilians have been killed and hundreds more wounded in fighting over recent weeks between Syrian forces and armed Saudi-backed ISIL rebels

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says that civilians and civilian infrastructure are coming under daily attack by airstrikes, artillery shelling and barrel bombs. In addition, many schools in the region have been attacked, so catch-up classes are being provided for thousands of children who have been out of school since May.

Aleppo hospital bombed

Laerke says that health care facilities are fully protected under international humanitarian law, and it is illegal to target them.

Friendly fire kills in two incidents in Afghanistan

Afghan security forces personnel were killed by US airstrikes in the middle of May a spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan told CNN. While the Afghan national defence forces were under heavy attack by the Taliban in in Helmand, they had requested precision air support and airstrikes were called in. Afghan Security Forces as well as Taliban fighters were killed in the strikes. Eight Afghan policemen were killed and 11 others were injured.

In March, a US-Afghan convoy came under fire from friendly forces positioned near an Afghan National Army check point in the Uruzgan province, US and coalition officials told CNN. American forces launched two “self-defense” airstrikes near the checkpoint, mistakenly killing five Afghan soldiers and wounding 10 more, according to the Afghan government and coalition. An Afghan quick reaction force was initially called in to help but the firing continued.

As the Ministry of Defence has not updated its monthly information on RAF airstrikes this year, we are no longer aware of the damage done to human beings, their hospitals homes and schools by the RAF in Iraq and Syria.

Is this due to a desire for secrecy, to incompetence or simply due to indifference?







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The Syrian war is not over: there are attacks by Israel & the US-led coalition – ‘a new trajectory’ ?

Middle East Monitor reports, on April 15th, that an Israeli intelligence firm, ImageSat International has released satellite images claiming to show “the complete destruction of a possible Iranian surface-to-surface missile factory” in Syria’s Masyaf District, allegedly struck by Israel on Saturday.

“The main industrial structures were completely destroyed, including the main hangar and the adjacent three production hangars and buildings. The rest of the structures were affected and damaged by the blast,” the firm said, adding that they “assess that all the elements and/or equipment which were inside are completely destroyed as well.”

Syrian local media reported that the Israeli airforce strikes were carried out against army positions near the city of Masyaf in the Hama province, destroying some buildings and wounding 25 people.

Israel is said to have been hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019, occurring in broad daylight. Acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

A day later came reports from sources on the ground and local Syrian media of the killing of least three people (one man and two women) in the last 24 hours in the area of Dayr az Zor, Syria, in air strikes by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

Plans to link the railway networks of Iran, Iraq and Syria and facilitate better trade links, have been revealed by a source at the Syrian Ministry of Transport to Al-Watan  newspaper. And Syria announced earlier this month its intention to lease the port of Latakia to Iran from October following a official request from Tehran to Damascus in February 2018.

Will such allied efforts to rebuild proceed in safety?






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Under the spotlight: European assistance to the ‘War on Terror’ drone strikes

President Donald Trump, who has stepped up the use of drones in Somalia and other areas, recently revoked a requirement for U.S. intelligence officials to give public reports listing the number of civilians killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside war zones – a practice which was part of an accountability effort to minimize civilian deaths from drone strikes. The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, however, has announced that he will seek to reimpose the intelligence community’s reporting on civilian casualties through a provision in this year’s Intelligence Authorization Act.

Amnesty USA focusses on UK, German, Dutch and Italian role in America’s lethal drone strikes

A report by the Open Society’s Justice Initiative highlights how, with German support, the United States has carried out illegal killings as part of its “War on Terror” doctrine—which represents a threat to the rule of law everywhere.

Yesterday, the Higher Administrative Court of North Rhine-Westphalia in Münster heard arguments from lawyers representing a Somali herdsman whose father was killed in a U.S. drone strike in February 2012.

The charge argues that allowing U.S. bases on German territory to support such drone strikes violates both the German constitution and Germany’s Status of Forces Agreements with NATO, under which U.S. forces are granted the right to operate on its territory while respecting German law.

The legal team earlier filed an application to the Higher Regional Court of Zweibrücken arguing that that the United States’ so-called “global war on terrorism” is not justifiable under German law, and that the German government has a duty to prevent any U.S. military action under that category that is supported from German territory.

The complaint asserted that German officials are jointly responsible for the deaths of the two men because Germany hosts two U.S. military facilities indispensable for planning and operating drone strikes in Africa: the U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein, which plays a crucial role in conducting U.S. drone operations worldwide, and the U.S. military’s African command headquarters (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart, which is responsible for all military operations in Africa.

The application seeks a judicial declaration that Germany has committed these violations and an order directing the prosecution to conduct the necessary investigations into this case.


Business Insider reports that yesterday the Senate voted to withdraw United States support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, reported on several posts on this site, eg




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Afghan civilians die as American negotiators seek ‘leverage’ in peace talks


The New York Times reports that ten civilians were killed and several others were wounded over the weekend (February 10-11) during American airstrikes in southern Afghanistan.

Two residents of the Sangin district of Helmand said eight members of a single family were killed by airstrikes in one house and two more in a nearby structure, among them women and children.

Another local resident, Aslam Khan, said the home of his brother, Assti Khan, in the Sangin district, was fired upon by a helicopter when he switched on a flashlight to find his shoes. The shots killed Assti Khan’s 10-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and wounded his wife and 18-year-old daughter, his brother said in a telephone interview.

A Sangin resident, Haji Mohammad Dawoud, said Taliban fighters had fired from a building next to the home of a local man, Nader Shah, whose eight family members were said to have died.

Mohammad Hasim Alokozai, a member of Parliament from Helmand, put the death toll higher, saying in an interview that 14 civilians were killed and six wounded in the two houses.

An American military spokeswoman in Kabul, Sgt. Debra Richardson, said that American aircraft had conducted airstrikes in the province late Friday night and early Saturday morning, but that she could not confirm or deny that civilians had been killed.

Two airstrikes killed 29 people in January, most of them women and children, in southern Helmand Province. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal report that in recent months, more civilians have been in harm’s way as the American military has ramped up attacks against Taliban insurgents, part of an effort to give American negotiators leverage in peace talks with the Taliban.





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