With nations around the world exploring drone technology, its implementation often creates controversy. Drones were invented to be used as powerful tools in war zones. And while they’ve served their intended purpose, they have also inadvertently killed thousands of innocent civilians.
Not violating human rights in the process of protecting human rights has proven difficult for the aerospace companies and militaries developing and using drone technology. The use of drones is not necessarily illegal, but how they are used can sometimes violate international law, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said at a panel in October, according to UN News Center.
“Both states using drones and states on whose territory drones are used have their own obligations to respect international standards and prevent violations,” said Heyns.
A report released at the end of February by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, calls for impartial investigations into a string of high-profile drone attacks that have killed civilians incountries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, as well as Gaza and other places where the so-called War on Terror is being waged.
The report documents a dramatic reduction in drone strikes in 2013 in Pakistan after the Pakistani government rallied international pressure for the United States to halt its drone program there.
The drop in drone strikes in Pakistan did not come until after civilians were killed in a series of accidents in drone missions targeting terrorists or other criminals.
Meanwhile, the report cited increased drone strikes in Afghanistan and in Yemen toward the end of the year.
On Israel, with relation to the Gaza Strip, Emmerson noted that the government “emphasized that a standard of zero anticipated civilian casualties goes beyond the mandatory requirements of international humanitarian law,” and that militant use of civilian buildings within Gaza complicated the situation.
He also said he had “identified a number of sample strikes in which there are credible allegations that civilians were killed or injured as the result of Israeli drone strikes in Gaza.”
Bringing drone use out of the shadows and into the transparent light of the international community isn’t in the interest of those who make, sell and use drone technologies.
In another report released this week, the U.K. was found guilty of buying technology tested on Palestinian refugees in Gaza.
War on Want, an organization that campaigns for “human rights and against the root causes of global poverty, inequality and injustice,” alleges that the Watchkeeper, a new drone with the potential to be equipped with missiles or used for surveillance, was recently approved for use by the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense.
The War on Want report cites a deal between the U.K. and Israeli governments to develop the new surveillance drone through a joint venture with Israeli arms contractor Elbit Systems and its partner company, Thales UK. The Watchkeeper, War on Want asserts, is built on “the Israeli Hermes 450, described as the ‘workhorse’ of Israel’s military in its operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli companies such as Elbit will often boast of their competitive advantage in the global arms market due to their extensive ‘testing’ of their weaponry in ‘real life’ situations.”
Those “‘real life’ situations” have affected the lives of more than one million Palestinians in Gaza.
John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, wrote in the report’s preface that “the British government is, in effect, buying technology that has been ‘field tested’ on Palestinians. By continuing to license arms exports to and imports from Israel, the British government is giving material support to Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people, and sending a clear message of approval for its actions.”
The U.K.’s official message is that the Watchkeeper has been undergoing testing within its own borders, the Telegraph reported last month, and has logged up 500 hours of flying time in West Wales since trials began there in 2010.
In comparing the Watchkeeper to the Hermes 450, War on Want detailed some of the features of the Hermes 450, as the U.K. Ministry of Defense has not divulged many details on the Watchkeeper’s capabilities.
The Hermes 450 has been used by the Israeli Defense Force for roughly 15 years and played an important role in Israel’s air-power technology, the War on Want report said.
“According to the Elbit website, the Hermes 450 is a ‘primary platform of the Israeli Defense Forces’ and is ‘combat-proven,” the report continued. The unmanned aerial vehicles feature target tracking, laser-illumination systems, “which can highlight a target with a spot of laser light and then either strike with an on-board missile or provide information to combat aircraft, naval vessels or ground units to strike.”
It has a range of 186 miles and the ability to fly at 18,000 feet, War on Want noted.
If the Watchkeeper is at all based on the Hermes 450, then it is safe to say it will be a formidable tool and weapon. But its development has come at the cost of using occupied Palestinian land as “Israel’s drone lab,” War on Want said.
Meanwhile, drone strikes and accidents continue unabated. As recently as Tuesday, an Israeli drone strike killed three people, and another surveillance drone crashed but did not cause any deaths, The Associated Press reported.
Emmerson told the Guardian on Tuesday that the British government plans on going on the offensive with their drone assets.
“My understanding is that the plan is to deploy them to parts of Africa and the Middle East where they can be used for surveillance … over a wide range of territory [in conflicts] where one party is a jihadist group,” he said.
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