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Statement on use of drones and denial of the right to life

Statement on the use of drones and denial of the right to life adopted by the WCC Executive Committee during its meeting from 7 to 12 February 2014 in Bossey and Geneva, Switzerland.

12 February 2014

WCC Executive Committee
7-12 February 2014
Bossey, Switzerland

1. The use of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has increasingly posed serious threats to humanity, especially the right to life. The UAVs, either controlled by “pilots” from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission, can kill innocent civilians. Over the past decade, the expanded use of drones has dramatically changed warfare, bringing new humanitarian and legal challenges. The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because, unlike manned aircraft, they now can stay in the air for many more hours than previously.  Additionally, they are much less expensive to operate than military aircraft as they are flown remotely without a flight crew. It is also extremely worrying that the UAV industry has been slowly growing over the years. The fear is that the number of countries with the capacity to use drones is likely to increase significantly in the near future.

2. Now rapid advances in UAV technology are permitting countries with high-tech militaries, including the United States of America, Israel, Russia and the United Kingdom, to move towards systems that would give full combat autonomy to machines. The use of UAVs, first made operational in the Balkans war, has subsequently escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and most recently in Pakistan. Despite arguments as to the benefits of the use of drones in reducing the risk of military casualties, it has been consistently observed that drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications. Such strikes also set dangerous precedents in inter-state relations. As per international law, the drone operations by any State that involve the use of force on the territory of another State, without its consent, is a violation of a country’s sovereignty.

3. Since 2004, the USA has been engaged in an undeclared war in Pakistan against the suspected militants or “terrorists”. Hundreds of missile attacks from unmanned aircraft have been carried out against suspected militants, with the vast majority of US drone strikes in Pakistan having taken place in North Waziristan. The USA’s ongoing use of drones in Pakistan’s territory is a violation of that nation's sovereignty, as it is being conducted without the consent of the country’s legitimate government. As Pakistan categorically has stated that it does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory, this is a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pakistan has been expressing its fears that the drone campaign would ultimately be counter-productive, as it would further contribute to radicalizing a whole new generation and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the country and in the region.

4. A report of the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions focused on lethal autonomous robots and the protection of life, observed that “drones enable a State to perform targeted killing without exercising effective control over territory and without having the individual in custody.” The report further observed, “the use of drones by States to exercise essentially a global policing function to counter potential threats presents a danger to the protection of life.” When drones enable a State to perform targeted killing without effective control over territory, such targeting can result in killing innocent people, which is a violation of the right to life. While taking note of the report of the Special Rapporteur, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in December 2013 and urged the international community to observe international laws with regard to the use of remotely piloted aircraft. The resolution also noted the recommendations, including the urgent and imperative need to seek agreement among Member States on legal questions pertaining to remotely piloted aircraft operations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon speaking at the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan (13 August 2013) stated that “the use of armed drones – like any other weapons should be subject to long-standing rules of international law, including international humanitarian law. Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes and civilian causalities”. It is widely recognized that a significant challenge to assessing the legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan or other countries is due mainly to the uncertainty about which set of international law or standards should be applied.

5. The use of drones ultimately kills people and denies their right to life.  The right to life is a moral principle based on the belief that a human being has the right to live and, in particular, should not to be unjustly killed by another human being. It is also our firm belief that the measures taken by any State threatening the life and dignity of the human person cannot be justified. In this context, the use of extraterritorial force within another State’s territory and sovereignty cannot be justified when it threatens the life of innocent people. We believe the sanctity of life and  the biblical message call us to protect the right to life; deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter (Proverbs 24:11).

It is in this context that the World Council of Churches expresses its deep concern about the targeted killings by drones carried out in different countries.

The executive committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting at Bossey, Switzerland, from 7 to 12 February 2014, therefore:

Condemns drone strikes by any country, especially the unlawful policies and practices of the use of lethal force against terrorism;

Affirms the WCC’s conviction that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, and hence every human life is sacred and has an inherent dignity;

Urges all States using drones to be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of drones and publically disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, exercising operational responsibility;

Calls on States where armed drones are used to respect and recognize the duty to protect the right to life of their subjects and oppose the violation of human rights and principles of international humanitarian law by foreign powers;

Urges the international community to oppose the unlawful policies and practices, particularly of US Drone strikes in Pakistan;

Requests that the international community refrain from transfers of drones weapons that can be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law;

Urges the US government to ensure justice for victims of unlawful drone strikes, including family members of the victims of unlawful killings, and to avail effective access to remedies, especially restitution, compensation to families of civilians killed or injured, and adequate protection for their rehabilitation;

Believes that it is our duty to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute, to speak up and judge fairly, to defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).

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