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 http://dronewarsuk.wordpress.com. 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 https://dronewarfare.wordpress.com/2018/02/12/our-special-friend-increases-executions-without-trial-regardless-of-yemens-suffering/




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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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Enabling RAF chaplains to provide guidance to drone pilots

See our 2014 post

The Times and the Commercial Drone Professional reported recently that the Church of England has announced a programme helping RAF chaplains to offer pastoral care and support to drone pilots. They will spend a year studying for a master’s degree in ethics at Cardiff University so they can provide guidance to drone pilots in the British Army on the moral dilemmas that come with killing an enemy on the other side of the world.

Reverend David Coulter, chaplain-general, told The Times: “It’s very different in asymmetric warfare when people are going to work flying drones and then going back to their families in the evening.” He added: “They’re not deploying overseas and disappearing for months on end. So that brings a very interesting dynamic pastorally as well as professionally.”’

Officials became concerned about how drone pilots feel when committing attacks from such a distance.

Seven years ago, a Ministry of Defence report (Joint Doctrine Publication, right) noted ethical concerns: It added: “It is essential that . . . by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely” – but this report is now officially declared ‘no longer authoritative’.

GQ (formerly Gentlemen’s Quarterly), an international monthly men’s magazine based in New York, added that Air Force psychologists had completed a mental-health survey of 600 combat drone operators. 42% of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20% reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.”

During the 2015 Hay Festival, Peter Gray, a university lecturer and former RAF navigator (Air Commodore), said: “It’s interesting when you talk to some of the people who are doing this kind of thing. It’s interesting when you start getting statistics that show that post-traumatic stress disorder is higher in drone operators than it is in many aircrew. They follow the pattern of life in a target environment, and they get so used to that, living day in, day out with these people, that when an attack has to be made, they feel it every bit as much as a pilot of a fast jet who just drops the bomb.”

On 17th December ‘Eye in the Sky’ was shown on television. One review said that the film “provides a valuable dramatization of what we’re asking of the public servants who carry out the missions we passively or actively endorse. This is the rare military drama that conveys both the graphic physical effects of war and its lingering psychic cost”.

The New American asked: “[Would] the members of the United States Armed Forces not be better served by eliminating the source of the trauma rather than treating its effects?”





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Should we focus on autonomous weapons or the human agencies directing them?

A member of Scientists for Global Responsibility has drawn attention to a report by Peter Burt: Off the Leash: The Development of Autonomous Military Drones in the UK.

In a Guardian article*, Jamie Doward points out that though the government insists it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”, since 2015, the UK has declined to support proposals put forward at the UN to ban them.

Israel Defense summarises: ”The report maps out the agencies, laboratories, and contractors undertaking research into drones and autonomous weapon technology in support of the Ministry of Defence, examines the risks arising from the weaponization of such technologies, and assesses government policy in this area”.

“We have already seen the development of drones in Britain which have advanced autonomous capabilities, such as the Taranis stealth drone developed by BAE Systems, and the development of a truly autonomous lethal drone in the foreseeable future is now a real possibility,” Burt said.

A spokesman for the MoD said: “There is no intent within the MOD to develop weapon systems that operate entirely without human input. Our weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of oversight, authority and accountability.”

The BBC reported in November that at least 6,660 Yemeni civilians have been killed and 10,560 injured in the fighting, according to the United Nations.

It is hard to imagine fully autonomous weapons inflicting much more death and destruction than current technology under human control.

*link will not embed: go to https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/10/autonomous-drones-that-decide-who-they-kill-britain-funds-research)



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Google abandons three projects which could ’cause harm’

In June, Mark Bridge reported that Google software engineers refused to work on a security feature to isolate and protect Pentagon data, because of moral concerns about the company helping the US to wage war. A dozen employees resigned in May according to Engadget and 4000 staff signed a petition against the project which was halted.

The unnamed engineers were then joined by like-minded staff In a protest against an existing contract – Project Maven – to develop drone technology, using Google’s artificial intelligence to scan military drone footage to identify people and vehicles (video here)). Although Google said that it would be used for “non-offensive purposes” only, workers feared it would be used to identify targets for drone strikes in countries such as Afghanistan, where strikes have caused civilian casualties.

Google decided to end its involvement with Project Maven in 2019 when its contract expires

Earlier in October, the Washington Examiner reported Google’s decision not to compete for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing JEDI contract to improve the U.S. military’s  leverage of artificial intelligence capabilities because the project might conflict with corporate limits on the use of its technologies, which include a pledge not to build weapons or other systems intended to cause harm.

The Tech Workers Coalition, an organization of industry employees concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle whose members have expressed concern about the ethics of certain uses of artificial intelligence, said the decision was based primarily on “sustained employee pressure.” It alleged that Google had intended to compete for the contract and had ‘courted’ military officials extensively with the hope of winning such projects.

Google has issued admirable new ethical standardsArtificial Intelligence at Google: our principles

Speaking to The Verge, an American technology news and media network, a Google representative said that had these principles been published earlier, the company would not have become involved in Project Maven which used AI to analyse surveillance footage. Although the application was described as being for “non-offensive purposes” and was therefore permitted under these guidelines, a company representative said that Google will continue to work with the military “in many other areas” but that particular project was ‘too close for comfort’.

The document makes clear that the company will not develop AI for use in weaponry and is thought to suggest that Google will ‘play it safe’ with future military contracts.




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