Drones under UN Scrutiny

Unmanned Combat Aerial vehicles more commonly known by their innocent sounding nomenclature “drones” have ultimately come under the UN scrutiny. For the first time, the UN General Assembly has pronounced itself on the ever-increasing use of armed drones in the pursuit of ‘war on terror’.Drone Attack In Pakistan

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has unanimously passed a resolution against the employment of drones in foreign territories.Of late, Pakistan has shed its ambiguous stance on the drone issue and has assumed a strong posture as an opponent of these strikes conducted with the help of unmanned aircraft in its tribal areas. The political parties which form present federal and KPK governments had contested the elections on the promise that if voted to power, they would bring an end to drone attacks. The federal government is pursuing the matter at diplomatic level; however, the KPK government has gone a step ahead and has physically stopped the passage of vehicles carrying supplies for NATO/ISAF. However, supplies are passing through the second route that runs through Baluchistan. Air transport facility is also functioning smoothly.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had raised the issue of drone attacks during his address to 68th ministerial session of the UNGA: “The war against terrorism must be waged within the framework of international law. The use of armed drones in the border areas of Pakistan is a continued violation of our territorial integrity. It results in casualties of innocent civilians and is detrimental to our resolve and efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism from Pakistan. I have urged the United States to cease these strikes, so that we could avert further casualties and suffering”. During his meeting with President Obama on October 22, Nawaz Sharif had called upon the United States to end drone strikes, saying they violated country’s territorial integrity, and were a “major irritant” in relations between the two countries. On October 25, Pakistan renewed its demands for an end to US drone strikes on its territory. Pakistan’s UN ambassador Masood Khan had told a UN General Assembly rights committee debate: “In Pakistan, all drone strikes are a chilling reminder that reprisal strikes by terrorists are around the corner.”

Numerous voices have persistently been raised against drone attacks from all over the world, especially from within the US and a number of European countries. Pakistan’s point of view also got support from a number of international forums, which highlighted the political, legal and human rights related implications of this weapon system. In October 2013, the London-based ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ had put the total death toll, since the campaign began in Pakistan in 2004, between 2,525 and 3,613. The Bureau stated that between 407 and 926 of those killed were civilians that accounts for 16 to 25 percent of the total deaths.

As the critical mass gathered for regulating the employment of drones, the United States came up with a time bound policy for finishing the weapon related employment of drones and restricting its usage to surveillance. This was articulated in Obama’s famous “crossroads” speech. The UNGA resolution calls upon the main users of remotely piloted aircraft, to comply with the international law; this includes the UN Charter, human rights law and international humanitarian law. The portion about drone strikes was included in the resolution as a result of intensive efforts made by the Pakistan mission at the UN.

Although the text does not call for an end to drone strikes, it underscores the need for an agreement among member states on legal questions stemming from such operations. This resolution was co-sponsored by a record number of 81 countries, and adopted by consensus. The text was recommended by the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural issues.

The resolution calls for taking into account relevant UN resolutions and decisions on human rights and giving due consideration to recommendations of special procedures and mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, and relevant comments and views of UN human rights treaty bodies. This unanimous call was contained in a comprehensive 28-paragraph resolution, captioned: “Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.” The resolution also took note of the report of Special Rapporteur, Mr Ben Emersson, on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. Ben Emmerson had stated in a written report that Pakistan had told him that 400 of the 2,200 victims of drone attacks over the past decade were non-combatants.

The text also encouraged “states while countering terrorism to undertake prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiries whenever there are plausible indications of possible breaches to their obligations under international human rights law, with a view to ensuring accountability.” This resolution goes far beyond the drone issue. Pakistan has been tabling this resolution since 1981; it serves to focus the world’s attention on the struggle by peoples for their inalienable right to self-determination, including those in Kashmir and Palestine. The resolution also declared UN’s firm opposition to acts of foreign military intervention, aggression and occupation, since these have resulted in the suppression of the right of peoples to self-determination and other human rights in certain parts of the world. The resolution also called upon those States responsible to cease immediately their military intervention in and occupation of foreign countries and territories, as well as all acts of repression, discrimination, exploitation and maltreatment. It also deplored the plight of millions of refugees and displaced persons who have been uprooted as a result of these acts and reaffirms their right to return to their homes voluntarily in safety and honour. In a related development, a new law has been approved by the US House of Representatives that seeks to fiscally squeeze Pakistan if interruptions to the US/NATO ground supply routes through Pakistan continue. The bill is expected to be approved by the Senate as well. Recent partial interruptions in these supplies through KPK province are a result of public anger over the US drone attacks. During his recent visit to Pakistan, the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s is reported to have warned of reduction in economic aid if the NATO/ISAF supplies are not restored. On the heels of Prime Minister’s meeting with the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, National Assembly of Pakistan has passed yet another unanimous resolution against the US drone attacks, demanding an immediate halt to drone attacks on the Pakistani territory. The resolution strongly condemned these attacks, saying these constitute violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international laws and humanitarian norms. Pakistan’s Prime Minister also conveyed his deep concern over continuing American drone strikes in the country’s tribal regions. Hagel came to Islamabad after visiting Afghanistan at a time when relations between Pakistan and the United States are under pressure over several issues, particularly the controversial drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

This legislative instrument aimed at inflicting economic punishment on Pakistan is contrary to the spirit of the UNGA resolution for which America has also cast an affirmative vote. Hopefully, the US would go by the spirit of the UNGA resolution on drones, and the bill to inflict economic damage on Pakistan would not reach the finality of an Act.

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About the Author

Khalid Iqbal
Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal is Consultant Policy & and Strategic Response at IPRI. He is on the panel of experts for Spearhead Research and Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. He is a member board of advisers of Opinion Maker and member National Academic Council, Institute of Policy Studies. He is on the visiting faculty of Quaid-i- Azam University, Islamabad. He is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.

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