Red Cross Chief Urges Caution Over Covert Drones

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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Red Cross Chief Urges Caution Over Covert Drones

by
Alice K Ross

ICRC president Peter Maurer urged ‘very restrained’ use of drones (Photo: Thierry Gassmann / www.icrc.org)

The president of the humanitarian organisation International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) this week warned of the organisation’s concerns over drones being used in situations that are not official armed conflicts.

Peter Maurer made the comments following a four-day trip to Washington, in which he met with President Obama and senior advisers to discuss issues including drones, Syria and Guantanamo.

He discussed ‘the adequacy of international humanitarian law with new developments in terms of weapons, battlefields, actors to the battlefield’ with the US officials, he explained in a video briefing released after the visit.

He added: ‘It’s of crucial importance for the ICRC to have the latest views and thinkings on American strategies, and that we have an open and frank dialogue if there are points of disagreement on how we interpret battlefields, and how international humanitarian law is applicable in these new contexts.’

In a Geneva press conference following the visit, Maurer urged ’very restrained use of drones’, adding: ’The US is very aware… of where we disagree with the use of drones.’

‘If a drone is used in a country where there is no armed conflict… there is a problem,’ he told reporters.

Armed drones are used alongside other weapons by the US and UK in official armed conflicts including Afghanistan and Libya. But they are also used by the US in covert conflicts, away from formal battlefields and against ‘non-state actors’ such as informal militant groups, most prominently in the nine-year drone campaign in Pakistan against al Qaeda and other militant groups.

In armed conflicts such as Yemen and Afghanistan, drones are considered a legitimate weapon, Maurer told the press conference. But use of drones in Pakistan was ‘more problematic’, he reportedly told AFP reporter Nina Larson following the conference.

The comments came days after a high-profile coalition of US human rights and civil liberties groups wrote a public letter to Obama calling on the administration to track all civilian deaths relating to the drone programme, questioning claims by new CIA director John Brennan that civilian casualties are ‘exceedingly rare’.

‘Based on a review of a wide range of civilian casualty estimates, we are especially concerned that the administration may be consistently undercounting and overlooking civilian casualties. Moreover, the administration may be employing an overbroad definition of “combatant” or “militant” that would lead it to undercount civilian casualties,’ the letter said.

The letter called on the president to publish the criteria by which people are added to ‘kill lists’ for targeted killing by drones and other means, as well as the manuals and legal memos relating to such killings.

Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch were among the signatories to the eight-page letter, alongside the Human Rights Institute of Columbia Law School, and NYU School of Law, each of which published or co-published major reports on Obama’s use of covert drones last autumn.

The organisations also raised ‘serious questions about whether the US is operating in accordance with international law’, and pointed to ‘troubling indications that the US regards an individual’s affiliation with a group as making him or her lawfully subject to a direct attack’.

Read the letter’s full text here

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