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An MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicle of the United States Air Force.


Collateral damage caused by drones: Crime or accident?

by Idyli Tsakiri Karatzaferi
Feb 14, 2013


Rules of the IHL

 

-           The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.

-        Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

-        Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited.

-        In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. All feasible precautions - notably in the choice of means and methods of warfare - must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects

-        Each party to the conflict must do everything feasible to cancel or suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is not a military objective or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.


The United Nations considers collateral damage caused by drone strikes to be a potential war crime. The Pentagon says that its use of drones is legal. The Red Cross says, when they cause civilian casualties they are not.

On January 24, the U.N.’s specialist on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, asked for more information on civilian impact of the use of drones and other forms of targeting killing, said Arno Gasteiger of the U.N. Information Center.

Emmerson’s inquiry intends to make recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly regarding the duty of the individual countries to effectively and independently investigate the lawfulness and proportionality of such attacks, Gasteiger said.

The U.S. military, understandably, has a different view.

“The tools by which we prosecute this war are legal,” said Lt. Col. James Gregory, defense press officer of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Their use and where we employ them is covered under the authorization for the use of military force. They are no more or less legal than an errant bomb might be in a more conventional war,” he added.

However, the appropriate framework to assess the legality of the use of drones and their consequences specifically when used in armed conflict, is the International Humanitarian Law, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“As such, drones are not forbidden by IHL, neither for intelligence-gathering purposes nor as a weapons platform,” said Mark Silverman, Red Cross head of public and congressional affairs.

“However, the use of drones for a specific military operation in an armed conflict must always comply with the relevant applicable IHL provisions, the main ones being the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack,” Silverman added.

It is stated clearly in the IHL that civilians should not be attacked unless they take a direct part in the hostilities. Each party of a conflict is obligated to do everything that is possible to protect civilian lives.

“The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants,” the law states. “Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”

Another major problem of the drones is that there is not enough information on them. What are they exactly? What do they do? There is a need for much clearer definitions and a very open process on deciding who is targeted, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“So little is known about how they are used and how the targeting decision is made,” Yohnka said. “People need to know what guidelines are used to determine how the target is decided.”

Finally, drones are an additional choice in the means of warfare to the party that owns them, Silverman said.

“However, no general conclusion can be drawn with regard to the choice of using a drone as a weapon platform for a specific military operation: Their characteristics might make them the most appropriate choice for means of warfare for a specific operation while not for another one,” he added.