The United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, to investigate drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel region of Africa.
The investigation was formally launched on Thursday in response to requests from Russia, China and Pakistan, and will look into drone strikes by the US, UK, and Israel.
Emmerson will select a “representative sample” of about 20 or 30 strikes to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes. It beggars the imagination, however, that 20-30 strikes by at least 4 government agencies in at least 6 countries could be representative of much of anything, except possibly sample bias.
Emmerson has previously suggested that some drone attacks could possibly constitute war crimes. While this is certainly true, it could be said of any sort of attack. The fact that it is conducted by drone should make little if any difference to the calculus.
Emmerson also told the Guardian: “One of the fundamental questions is whether aerial targeting using drones is an appropriate method of conflict … where the individuals are embedded in a local community.” But again, the particular platform chosen to conduct the attack has little bearing on its legality or morality. It is how the platform is used that matters. The appropriate question is therefore not whether drones should be used, but whether any aerial strikes should be.
It is clearly important that the use of armed force by any state be carefully studied and it’s justifications questioned. This may be especially true when it is the world’s most powerful state that is conducting the operations. However, like many of the activities of the United Nations, it will remain to be seen whether the resulting report is an honest assessment of a difficult question, or is a purely political swipe by rivals.
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research