Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 2051 on Drones and Targeted Killings: the need to uphold human rights and international law

On 23 April 2015, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe[1] adopted Resolution 2051 ‘Drones and Targeted Killings: the need to uphold human rights and international law.’ This summary is based on the resolution’s provisional version containing an insightful ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ by the rapporteur of the Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

The Parliamentary Assembly expresses its concerns about apparent breaches of human rights and other international law by states using armed drones for targeted killings as well as states’ assistance in carrying out such attacks. Lethal drone bombings also cause considerable unintended “collateral damage” to civilians. In any case, lethal drone strikes may infringe the right to life as enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The European Court of Human Rights (the Court), has determined that the deprivation is of the right to life is only lawful when absolutely necessary for the safeguarding of the lives of others or protection of others from unlawful violence. It also ruled that the procedural aspect of Article 2 ECHR requires timely, full and effective investigations to hold to account those responsible for any wrongdoing.

Lack of transparency

The Assembly notes that not only armed drones attacks are largely shrouded in secrecy, but that too often also the extent of civilian deaths is unrevealed. The same goes for the decision making process for targeted killings and the balancing of potential civilian harm resulting from drone attacks. States are therefore called upon to establish clear procedures for authorizing strikes that can be subjected to judicial review and to ex-post evaluation by an independent body. In addition states must fully and effectively investigate all deaths caused by armed drones, be transparent about the investigations’ results, hold accountable those responsible drone attacks that occurred in breach of international law and to compensate victims of unlawful strikes or their relatives. Finally assisting states are called upon to be transparent about whether they have facilitated drone strikes and to not share intelligence for signature strikes based on meta-data.

While welcoming the increased transparency of the United States by disclosing its legal basis for drone attacks laid down in the ‘U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counter-Terrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities’, the rapporteur in his Explanatory Memorandum is at the same time critical when finding that ‘the publication of abstract legal criteria on its own is of limited practical use in terms of accountability for killings’. He pleads for more openness regarding the justifications for individual strikes, as far as possible without violating legitimate national security interests.

Finally, the rapporteur notes that those member states of the Council of Europe that use or facilitate drone strikes, may do so in breach of international law and that this may entail their legal responsibility.

[1] The Council of Europe is an international organisation in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe. It was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe and is not to be confused with the European Union’s (EU) European Council.