UN rights experts call for end to secrecy around armed drones

Australia should come clean about its role in the controversial American armed drone program after two United Nations human rights experts called for an end to the secrecy shrouding the US program.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy and Research, Emily Howie said that two separate reports released this week by the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killing called for states using armed drones to ensure that they are acting within international law.

Commenting on credible reports that Australia plays a role in locating targets for the US drone program through the joint facility at Pine Gap, Ms Howie said greater public access to information about drone strikes was essential to ensure legal and political accountability.

“It is unacceptable that Australia might be involved in this highly controversial American killing program without the Australian Government informing its own citizens. Australians have a right to know what our government is doing especially when it may involve in the unlawful killing of civilians overseas,” said Ms Howie.

The UN reports confirm that killing done through the US drone program may be violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Estimates vary, but as many as 3,000 people may have been killed by drone strikes, including many civilians.

The Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said that the greatest obstacle to assessing civilian harm is the lack of transparency. Mr Emmerson also questioned the extent to which national security can be used as a justification to withhold all types of information about drone strikes.

“National security is not a trump card played to defeat concerns about potentially very serious human rights abuses or perhaps even war crimes,” said Ms Howie.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, Christof Heyns, highlighted the likelihood of drones becoming less expensive, more accessible and forming part of the arsenal of an increasing number of states.

Ms Howie said international security and the protection of human rights both depend on states like Australia and America upholding and respecting a rules-based global order.

“It won’t be long before drones are in the hands of states that Australia does not consider to be allies. It’s in Australia’s national interest to lead by example and follow the rule of international law in any participation with drone strikes,” said Ms Howie.

The joint press release of the Special Rapporteurs and links to their reports are available online here.

For further comments please contact:
Emily Howie on 0421 370 997 or via emily.howie@hrlc.org.au