by Piet Coetzer

Drone warfare escalates in Africa

A tidal shift in war

Ben Emmerson QC
Ben Emmerson QC.jpg

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are increasingly being deployed in conflict areas in Africa. According to one expert on the subject “what is underway is a tidal shift in war-making that has caught the world off-guard”. The comment came as the United Nations finally launched an inquiry into the use of armed drones for targeted killings. 

UAVs, originally developed and used for reconnaissance purposes, were first used for armed attacks in 2004 under the administration of then United States president George W. Bush. Just short of a decade later, and with clear evidence that attacks often take place outside battlefields with scores of civilian deaths as a result, there is still no international framework in place on the legality or standards and safeguards which apply to the use of drones. 

Despite the fact that the US has used drones to eliminate two of its own citizens – the US-born Al Qaeda supporters, Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan – the question of  its legality has not yet been raised in a US or international court of law. This situation might change soon, however, with a court case presently being heard in the United Kingdom. 

There have been well documented reports of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) strategy in Pakistan to deliberately target “civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals”.

A report of a year ago stated that despite claims by president Barack Obama that drone attacks are “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists trying to go in and harm Americans,” the reality is that “ since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.  

“A three-month investigation including eye-witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.”

On Obama’s watch, according to reports, some 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers have been launched in Pakistan alone. That is an average of an attack every fourth day under the secrecy cloth of the CIA, which makes figures on death tolls hard to come by.

Initially drone attacks in the main were restricted to countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. However they have since spread around the globe, including to countries in the north of Africa like Somalia. 

The use of drones is no longer restricted to the US. It is known that the United Kingdom have used them in Afghanistan. Other countries making use of UAVs include Israel and Iran. Even the UN recently announced plans to use drones in the DRC for  reconnaissance and data gathering.

And there are increasing signs that the proliferation of drones across the globe is on the verge of accelerating dramatically.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the prospect of China entering this new arms race. “Military analysts have suggested that China is focused on capabilities that could threaten US military vessels in a confrontation over Taiwan. The most recent Defence Department report to Congress on China's military capabilities notes that Beijing's push to develop longer-range unmanned aircraft, including armed drones, expands China's options for long-range reconnaissance and strike."

In September last year Defence Web reported on moves afoot in the US that would make possible the sale of drones to no fewer than 66 countries. The move, that would still require the official stamp of approval, comes under a Defence Department policy worked out last year to clear the way for wider overseas sales of unmanned aerial systems.

That this policy is neither aimed at meeting American security needs nor informed by legal or ethical consideration is clear from indications that it is the result of lobbying by the defence industry. Arms manufacturers are “looking abroad to help offset Pentagon spending cuts spurred by US (budget) deficit-reduction requirements”.

Another scary aspect of developments on the drone front is the trend towards technology, which will make these killing machines more “fully autonomous”. The Global Post reports that “competition among drone developers is becoming fierce, and we're likely to see the technology advance at a heightened pace in years to come”.

“The drones of today may not be fully autonomous yet, but it's the drones of tomorrow that have most people worried,” the report adds.

UN inquiry 

The announcement 10 days ago by Ben Emmerson QC, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, that he and a panel of experts will be investigating the legality and casualties of drone strikes, comes after the UN Human Rights Council last year asked its special rapporteurs for such an investigation. It followed a request by a group of nations, including Russia, China and Pakistan.

Emmerson’s inquiry, which will look at 25 strikes in detail, is a response to “the fact that there is international concern rising exponentially surrounding the issue of remote targeted killings through the use of unmanned vehicles”.

He said he expects to make recommendations to the UN General Assembly later this year. His team will also call for further UN action “if that proves to be justified by the findings of my inquiry.”

In a separate statement he also said: “The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law and it is both right as a matter of principle and inevitable as a matter of political reality that the international community should now be focusing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development, particularly its deployment in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency initiatives, and attempt to reach a consensus on the legality of its use, and the standards and safeguards which should apply to it.”

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