Q&A: UN’s Agnes Callamard on drone strike that killed Soleim…

The United Nations’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings presented a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

Agnes Callamard’s investigation focused on the legality of armed drones including one that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad’s airport on January 3. It concluded the United States acted unlawfully in carrying out the attack. The US, meanwhile, denounced her findings.

Callamard spoke to Al Jazeera about her probe and the future of drone warfare.

Al Jazeera: What prompted you to write this report?

Callamard: I had been speaking with a number of experts for the last year or so about focusing one or more of my thematic reports to the UN on weapons, particularly those being tested or under development, and what these may mean for the future of policing, warfare and, ultimately, the protection against arbitrary killings.

In general, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones figure large on this agenda, and have been the objects of repeated warnings by UN special rapporteurs for more than 15 years. Until January of this year, I did not feel that there was much more I could contribute to the debate given the in-depth work done by my predecessors. Everything changed on January 3, 2020, when the US launched a drone strike against a high-level government official on the territory of a third, non-belligerent country, and outside a known armed conflict.

This incident constituted a significant and troubling development, in terms of the identity of the target, the location of the strike, the many complex legal questions the strike rose and, of course, the implications for peace and security.

The strike against General Soleimani prompted me to return to the topic of drones … in view of the fact that the UN and other actors had been demanding for several years for regulation into what has become an uncontrollable race into developing, exporting and using drones.

Al Jazeera: What are the reasons for the increased use of UAVs?

Callamard: At this point in time, we have entered what I have described as the second drone age, characterised by an increasing number of states and non-state actors using them, and by drones becoming stealthier, speedier, smaller, more lethal and capable to be operable by teams located even thousands of kilometres away.

Yet, in spite of this exponential growth, both in terms of the number of actors using them and in terms of the technology, we, the people, actually know very little of their usage. Most drones use of force remain largely secretive operations, with little to no oversight by independent bodies. They carry little political cost for politicians and the militaries because they do not involve troops on the ground, and the risks to the lives of those operating drones are minimal. They are thus the weapons of choice for the wars of the 21st century. And yet, their impact and lethality are real.

Research has highlighted how harmful they are for the communities subjected to them. We need far greater transparency into their use and impact, including through investigation. And we also need public and informed debates over the strategy underpinning the use of drones at this point – that is the so-called decapitation strategy and its actual impact. 

Al Jazeera: In your report, you state drones are a lightning rod for key questions of asymmetrical warfare, the protection of life in conflicts and counterterrorism. Why is this?

Callamard: Drones sit at the intersection of counterterrorism and so-called conventional warfare. The allure of armed drones for politicians and militaries alike include their perceived efficiency, effectiveness, adaptability, acceptability and deniability, and relies on dangerous myths. One such myth, already mentioned, is that of the surgical strike.

Another is that wars may be largely bloodless and painless because drones allow for violence to be actualised from a distance with virtually no casualties for those operating them. They offer unprecedentedly asymmetrical advantage in favour of their deployer; promising limited damage to other than the intended target, with low-to-no risk of direct damage for the initiator. These are extremely dangerous notions, legally, politically, and morally speaking.

With few to no risks involved for those directing or operating drones, including little risk of legal accountability, as President Obama pointed out himself, “the typical decision-making barriers to the use of force has become eroded … because they do not attract the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites”.

Al Jazeera: What form of accountability should flow from the illegal use of armed drones?

Callamard: Drones are not unlawful weapons. What need to be regulated is both the technological development and their usage. The use of drones … must be lawful under three bodies of law: The law of self-defence, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law. 

In practice, very little accountability occurs. There has been a few lawsuits by victims of drones strikes, but these often do not succeed because courts claim they have no jurisdiction over extraterritorial activities. At this point, as explained in my report, accountability requires at least three commitments or changes.

The first is internationally: We need the international community to develop robust international standards governing the development, export, and use of drones. We also need UN decision-making bodies and member states to engage with the use of drones and more generally any claims by states that they are acting in “self-defence”.

A second intervention for accountability is with the parliaments of countries that produce, export, and use drones. They must be prepared to play a much more active role and approve and scrutinise a country’s lethal use of drones. They should enact stricter controls on the transfer of military and dual-use drone technology, and apply clear criteria to prevent irresponsible transfers for instance.

A third intervention is at the level of the judicial sector: Courts must be prepared to declare that a country’s human rights treaty obligations can apply in principle to the conduct of a state outside its territory, and that drones strikes and their targets should be considered within the jurisdiction of the state operating the drone.

An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan [File: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP]

Al Jazeera: What can be done by the judicial sector?

Callamard: Thus far, courts have largely refused to provide oversight to drones’ targeted killings extraterritorially, arguing that such matters are political, or relate to international relations between states and thus are non-justiciable. A blanket denial of justiciability over the extraterritorial use of lethal force cannot be reconciled with recognized principles of international law, treaties, conventions, and protocols, and violates the rights to life and to a remedy. There are notable and recent exceptions to this state of affairs, which may augur of a stronger legal response to drone use of force. A watershed ruling is that of an administrative court described in my report.

Al Jazeera: What does the killing of Soleimani tell us about the state of the world?

Callamard: The killing of General Soleimani shows how dangerously close the world has been to a major and deadly crisis. It should send us all a clear warning. The international community now confronts the very real prospect that states may opt to “strategically” eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a “known” war, and try to justify such a killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a “terrorist” who posed a potential, undefined, future threat.

More generally, the exponential use of drones reflects a race for armaments which presents extraordinary risks for us all. Such a race is taking place in the midst of persistent and repeated attacks against basic principles of humanity – hospitals and schools are routinely targeted by parties to a conflict; human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents living in exile do not find safety abroad but continue to be threatened, harassed, and sometimes killed.

War is at risk of being normalised as a legitimate and necessary companion to peace. We must do all that we can to resist this deadly creep.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

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