Hot topic: Drones

Following Rand Paul’s 12 hour filibuster in the US Senate, the debate on drones is finally getting the attention it needs. Last week, members of the European Parliament expressed concern that US drone policy is putting ‘global stability and international order at risk.’  The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism has recently launched a formal inquiry into the civilian impact of the use of drones. These activities draw attention to an issue that has been lurking in the shadows since the early days of the ‘global war on terror’.

The human rights concerns raised by the use of unmanned aerial vehicles are many, but the right to life is paramount among them. The applicable law varies depending on whether the drone strikes are carried out in the context of an armed conflict. This is because humanitarian law permits the use of lethal force against persons taking direct part in hostilities, whereas human rights law only contemplates the use of lethal force in self-defense. Where drone strikes are carried out as part of an armed conflict, they must not be indiscriminate, they must be proportionate, and they must not target civilians or civilian objects.

The most recent focal point of the controversy has been the targeting of US citizens, the legality of which was discussed in a recent white paper produced by the Department of Justice. Apart from the right to life concerns raised by the use of drones generally, the targeting of Americans has flagged up constitutional concerns about lack of due process. However, it should be noted that international law has codified similar due process principles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and thus these concerns should attach to all persons targeted by drones.

The right to life and due process rights are not the only rights impacted by drones. Where the CIA is the perpetrator of the drone strikes, there is appropriate concern about accountability, impacting the right to remedy for human rights violations. Physical damage and destruction as a result of the strikes raises concerns about property loss, displacement, development, and poverty. (For an excellent examination of the civilian impacts of drone strikes, see this report by the Colombia Law School’s Human Rights Institute).

From a business and human rights perspective, we know that the Guiding Principles set out the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which at a minimum means to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others. For those firms that are directly involved in the design, construction, and recruitment of necessary personnel (e.g. Bosh Global Services), this responsibility is clearly being shirked.  In other cases, complicity in human rights abuse may be less obvious but still merits attention. For example, the Mail on Sunday reported that British Telecom has become involved in drone operations by undertaking a contract with the US government to facilitate communications between one its UK bases and its base in Djibouti, from where many drone strikes are launched. Because BT is a British company, the UK government has a role to play here. Under the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework (which was later enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles), States have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises such as BT.

As the drone debate continues, it is important to pay attention to the full range of human rights issues and to approach them from the perspective of business responsibility as well as government duty. The US government position on drones seems to be entrenched; however, by drawing attention to corporate complicity and the potential for corporations to be held accountable by other states, it may be possible to engender a change in the way drones are deployed.


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