human rights news & views

Drone victims must be identified: Register of war casualties needed

International law requires that every causalty of war is recordedA London think-tank argues that international law requires “those who use or authorise the use of drone strikes to record and announce who has been killed and injured in each attack."

An unmanned aerial vehiclke or droneDrones — known in military jargon as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ or UAVs — are miniature aircraft with no human crew on board. They are controlled by long-distance remote as they fly over foreign lands spying, bombing infrastructure and 'incinerating' people.

Prof. Paul RogersArmed drones are "fast becoming the weapons of choice by the United States and its allies in South Asia and the Middle East," observes Prof. Paul Rogers of Bradford University Peace Studies Department, "yet their use raises major questions about legality which have been very largely ignored.”

A report published this month by the Oxford Research Group argues that respect for the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life requires those who authorise, use and control drones to identify victims of their attacks.

Likewise, the right to redress in instances of wrongful killing or injury requires that victims be identified.

“This is not asking for the impossible. The killing of Osama Bin Laden suggests the lengths to which states will go to confirm their targets when they believe this to be in their own interest. Had the political stakes in avoiding mistaken or disputed identity not been so high, Bin Laden (and whoever else was in his home) would almost certainly have been typical candidates for a drone attack.”

Drone attacks are usually isolated strikes, rather than part of a battle, and so identification should commence immediately.  Difficulty identifying someone killed by ‘high explosive attack’ is no excuse for not attempting it.

It is also necessary to identify the deceased’s religion, if any. If they cannot be returned to their family, the dead must be buried individually and with dignity, according to the rites of their religion.  The burial site must be recorded by the party in control of that territory on an official register of graves.

These are all legal obligations found in international humanitarian law, international human rights law and domestic law, are:

“binding on all parties at all times in relation to any form of violent killing or injury by any party.”

Prof. Susan Breau of Flinders Law School in AustraliaProf. Susan Breau (left), lead author of the report, argues for the establishment of “a global casualty recording mechanism which includes civilians so that finally every casualty of every conflict is identified,” including people killed by drones.

The Oxford Research Group seeks to "raise public awareness and build political will" towards establishing such a global and systematic mechanism of recording the details of every single person killed as a consequence of armed conflict.


  1. 16 September 2011 | 10:27 pm

    See also 2 books reviews: “Predators and Robots at War” by Christian Caryl in the NY Review of Books (29 Sept. 2011)

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