Legal confusion about drone strikes ‘stops victims getting justice’

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Jul 13, 2017
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The easy availability of drones was encouraging government to resort to lethal force, the International Bar Association said

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A lack of legal clarity over the use of armed drones in military conflicts means that innocent victims of strikes have little chance of obtaining justice, international lawyers claim.

Both the UK and the US have increasingly employed drone strikes in their operations in Iraq and Syria.

Data released after a request under the Freedom of Information Act showed that between August 2014 and the end of last year British forces launched nearly 1,700 drone missions in those two countries in which 670 weapons were fired. The use of drones was highlighted in 2015 when a British strike killed Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan in Syria. The victim was described at the time by David Cameron as posing an “imminent threat” to the UK.

Yesterday, the human rights institute of the International Bar Association said it was concerned that the “availability of drones … may spread armed conflict and encourage states to resort to lethal force and violate human rights”. The lawyers claimed there was a lack of clarity and transparency around international law governing drone strikes and that “secrecy surrounding the use of drones” hindered investigations into the circumstances of those killed or injured by them.

The IBA lawyers also argued that there was a “lack of required infrastructure and/or access to the judicial system for victims of drone strikes to realise effective remedies”.

In a resolution published yesterday, the institute said that “the use of drones must adhere to the current law governing the use of force”. It said that the “accepted exceptions to the general prohibition against the threat or use force” under the UN charter are that force may be lawfully used “only in cases where consent has been sought and granted from the legitimate government of a territorial state, or in proportionate self-defence, or with the authorisation of the UN Security Council”.

According to the resolution, “drones provide a simple recourse to force that would otherwise have been impossible, and this gives them a uniquely destabilising capacity. As the practical barriers to the use of force fall down, it is vital that the legal barriers are reinforced and reasserted”.

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