Death by drone: how can States justify targeted assassinations? | News


In a movement that caused a ripple effect across the Middle East, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was killed in the United States. drone attack near Baghdad International Airport on January 3. On that day, the Pentagon announced that the attack had been carried out “under the leadership of the president”.

Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile attack targeting US troops in Iraq January 7.

In a new report examining the legality of armed drones and the murder of Soleimani in particular, Agnes Callamard, The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions has declared the American raid that killed Soleimani to be “illegal”.

Callamard presented his report on Thursday to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The United States, which is not a member after leaving the board in 2018, has rejected the report saying it had given “a pass to the terrorists.”

In the opinion of Callamard, the consequences of the assassinations targeted by armed drones have been neglected by the States. His report says the world is at a “critical time and possible tipping point” when it comes to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Second age of the drone”

A “second age of drones” has now emerged, she wrote, with states using increasingly advanced technologies.

One of the biggest concerns about the increased use of armed drones, mentioned in the report, is the number of civilian casualties it causes. The attack on Soleimani, for example, claimed many more victims than the direct targets.

Soleimani was killed along with eight other people, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Iraqi People’s Mobilization Forces.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Callamard said: “TThe international community must now take stock of the evolution, expansion and escalation “of the use of drones.”

She noted that the murder of Soleimani was the first case of a drone attack against a representative of the state’s armed forces. It is also the first known incident in which a nation invoked “self-defense” to justify an attack against an actor of the State in the territory of a third country.

Previous United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings have lamented the lack of clarity among states as to their obligations regarding the drone war and the lack of accountability.

Experts agree that drones are not necessarily illegal, but it is not clear under what circumstances their use violates international law.

The coffins of General Soleimani and others killed in Iraq by an attack by American drones are transported in a truck during a funeral procession in the city of Mashhad, in Iran, in January. [Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim news agency via AP]


Callamard said that under international law, drone killings could be justified in certain circumstances – especially in the case of self-defense.

The criteria for imminent threat are crucial to determining whether the United States acted in self-defense, she noted.

Under article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, the use of lethal force is authorized in two scenarios: when it is authorized by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and when a country acts in state self-defense.

Callamard stressed that the criterion of “preventive self-defense” is very narrow: it must be a necessity “instantaneous, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no time for deliberation”. This standard, she said in a tweet released just after the murder of Soleimani, “is unlikely to be met.”

Washington had accused Soleimani of orchestrating attacks by Iranian-aligned fighters against American forces in the region.

“No evidence has been provided that General Soleimani specifically planned an imminent attack on American interests, particularly in Iraq, for which immediate action was necessary and would have been warranted,” said Callamard.

‘JEthreat immediacy«

Selon Kevin Jon Heller, pprofessor of international law at the University of Copenhagen, “The legality of an attack depends on the immediacy of the threat it aims to avert”.

Wim Zwijnenburg – humanitarian disarmament project manager for the Dutch peace organization PAX – told Al Jazeera: “The justifications advanced by the United States, then by Iran to defend its actions of January 7, contain no evidence that threats were imminent, and no reference to them. Both states tend to focus on past incidents. ”

Rachel van Landingham, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US military, said, “Callamard judges this drone attack relying almost solely on the effects of strikes and disregarding the data sets – the facts – that the commanders who had ordered such strikes had taken into consideration when they ordered the strike.

“Perform a rigorous legal assessment of drone attack, you have to know what the decision makers considered “imminent”. And here, the United States does not fully share this information, therefore it cannot make a justifiable characterization based on the facts available to it, “van Landingham told Al Jazeera.

But, she added, “The United States embarrassingly embarrassed the public rationale for this attack and therefore lost soft power, degraded American legitimacy and thereby weakened American national security, even if the attack was ultimately justified by the facts. “

Stop Trump?

Callamard’s report calls for greater accountability for targeted killings, as well as greater regulation of the weapons used.

Heller said that the United States had engaged the state in a strike because it violated “jus ad bellum”, the law relating to the conditions under which states can resort to war.

“The United States should apologize, promise not to launch new illegal strikes, and possibly provide Iran with some sort of compensation.” But of course not, “said Heller.

In June Iran issued an arrest warrant against President Donald Trump and others for their role in the murder of Soleimani and the other victims of the attack.

“The proper legal course of action to hold those suspected of serious war crimes, such as Mr. Soleimani, accountable for their actions would be to arrest them and bring them to justice and bring justice to their victims,” This Zwijnenburg.

“Deciding unilaterally to target suspected terrorists outside of armed combat zones risks setting a precedent that could undermine the current application of international legal principles intended to protect people from state violence.”


The report recommends that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate the targeted drone killings.

Callamard also called on states to investigate vigorously allegations of damage to civilians during these attacks and to publish their findings.

“The planning of each operation to use drones for targeted killings must guarantee in advance that each of the bodies of law concerned is examined, both international humanitarian law and human rights law”, Dapo Akande, a professor at the University of Oxford, told Al Jazeera.

“And every country that engages in such operations should have a system that examines each operation after the fact to verify that the rules of international law have been respected. “


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