Top judge: ‘use of drones intolerable’

Author: By Robert Verkaik, Legal Editgor

In an interview with the British Institute of International and Comparative
Law, Lord Bingham compared drones, which have killed hundreds of civilians
in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza, with cluster bombs and landmines.

His comments are bound to intensify calls for new international rules to
protect civilian populations from arbitrary attacks launched by the
pilotless craft.

Lord Bingham asked in the interview, which addressed the issue of the state
being bound by the rule of law: “Are there, for example, and this goes
to conflict, not post-conflict situations, weapons that ought to be
outlawed? From time to time in the history of international law various
weapons have been thought to be so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human
tolerance. I think cluster bombs and landmines are the most recent examples.

“It may be ? I’m not expressing a view ? that unmanned drones that fall
on a house full of civilians is a weapon the international community should
decide should not be used.”

Drones have become an important weapon against the Taliban in the remote
mountainous borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Britain has said it
plans to use drones as weapons. The Army already deploys them to gather
battlefield intelligence. Last month the US admitted to 26 civilian deaths
in a series of drone attacks that took place in May. In those attacks Afghan
officials put the death toll at 140, significantly higher than the US
claims.

Last week Israel was accused of using missile-firing drones to unlawfully kill
at least 29 Palestinian civilians during the Gaza Strip war.

Despite having advanced surveillance equipment, drone operators failed to
exercise proper caution “as required by the laws of war” in
verifying their targets were combatants, said Human Rights Watch, the New
York-based monitoring group, in a 39-page report. It described six alleged
strikes by remote-controlled aircraft.

Israel has a fleet of spy drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs), but refuses to confirm or deny widespread beliefs that some of the
aircraft also carry weapons.

International lawyers also argue that air strikes using drones are
state-sanctioned assassinations where the targeted suspected terrorist has
no opportunity to defend the case against him.

Last month US drone aircraft killed at least 45 Pakistani Taliban militants in
south Waziristan when it fired missiles at the funeral of an insurgent
commander who was killed earlier that day.

In a reference to the detention under the Terrorism Act of 82-year-old Walter
Wolfgang, who heckled Jack Straw at the Labour Party conference in 2005,
Lord Bingham, a former lord chief justice and master of the rolls, called on
states to use anti-terror powers proportionately. He said: “Again, we
probably agree that powers should be exercised for the purposes for which
they were conferred in the first place, and therefore a source of obvious
concern ? and this would be multiplied worldwide ? [would be] if a power
enacted to counter terrorism is used to arrest a heckler at a party
conference.”

Last year in his first major speech since his retirement as the senior law
lord, Lord Bingham disputed the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the
US, the UK and allies. He said that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was “a
serious violation of international law”, and he accused Britain and the
US of acting like a “world vigilante”.

Remote-controlled death: Unmanned aircraft

*The Predator, and its successor, the Raptor, is a remote-controlled aircraft
system which first came into use in 1995. It can be deployed for
reconnaissance and missile attack. The air-strike version is armed with two
Hellfire missiles and has been deployed over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia,
Serbia, Iraq and Yemen.

It is estimated that 300 people have been killed in at least 30 drone strikes
since August 2008. During the initial phases of the 2003 US-led invasion of
Iraq, a number of older Predators were stripped down and used as decoys to
test the Iraqi air defences. Britain has been employing a reconnaissance
version since 2006.Sometimes drones and their remote operators make mistakes
and kill innocent civilians.

Two years ago a Predator fired a missile into a wedding party in Afghanistan,
killing at least 30 civilians, including children. But they have proved
successful in the war against al-Qai’da and the Taliban, who have both lost
high-ranking leaders to the unmanned aircraft.

High-profile victims include Hamza Rabia and Abu Laith al-Libi. They have also
killed Mohammed Atef, reputedly al-Qai’da’s chief of military operations,
and several of the group’s most experienced explosives and biological
weapons specialists.

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