'Drone strikes blur legal lines'

30 October 2013

Drone strikes are legally problematic because they “blur the lines” between situations that are classified as armed conflict and those that are not, an Oxford Martin School human rights expert told a UN panel on Friday.

Dapo Akande, co-director of the Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations (HRFG), was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘Drone Strikes and the Law’, following the presentation of two reports to the UN General Assembly on the use of drones.

One of the reports, by Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, was compiled with the help of HRFG and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, who provided a background paper and hosted an expert meeting. The background paper was worked on by Mr Akande and his graduate student, Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne, and the meeting was attended by both Professor Heyns and Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC, and other experts in human rights and international humanitarian law.

Friday’s panel discussion was chaired by chaired by the UN Assistant Secretary General on Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovi and included Professor Heyns, Mr Emmerson and representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Mr Akande told the panel: “What’s particularly troubling about drones and targeted killings, and the special rapporteurs make this clear, isn’t the technology and the weapons platform itself, nor the practice of targeted killing. The main problem in my view is that the technology and the practice blur the lines between the legal categories of armed conflict and situations that are not armed conflict.

“If we are not in an armed conflict situation then international human rights law doesn’t apply, and a much stricter test of lawful targeting applies. We would need to see evidence that it is necessary to target an individual because somebody else’s life is in immediate danger. Only if international human rights law applies is it possible to target someone merely on the basis of them being a member of an organised armed group.”