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2017 | Drone Deaths Violate Human Rights: The Applicability of the ICCPR to Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones, by J.L. Corsi, International Human Rights Law Review, 6-2017

This article addresses the applicability of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to civilian deaths caused by drone attacks. While focussing on United States (U.S.) drone strikes, the author argues that the U.S. can be held accountable for violating multiple provisions of the ICCPR –the right to life being the most obvious one- to which it is a party. Furthermore, the article underscores the applicability of the ICCPR in both peacetime and during armed conflict which is relevant given the U.S.’ continuous shift on whom it is at war with, and when and where it uses drone strikes.

The right to life

The right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life is articulated in article 6(1) ICCPR. Although the ICCPR does not expressly define the term ‘arbitrary’, authoritative definitions exist and its content varies in peacetime and in war. In wartime, the content of ‘arbitrary’ for the purposes of the right to be free from the arbitrary deprivation of life as protected under Article 6 ICCPR, is influenced by international humanitarian law principles on the prohibition to attack civilian (objects), proportionality, and military necessity. In peacetime and in conflict zones when active hostilities are not taking place—for example during occupation or detention- stricter constraints against lethal force as articulated in human rights law take primacy.

In respect of targeted drone killings of suspected terrorists, the author argues that such killings are ‘arbitrary’ within the meaning of the ICCPR provided that the person involved did not constitute a threat to state agents or other individuals in the moment the drone strikes.

Right to an effective remedy

Of particular interest for our purposes is chapter 6 on the obligation to provide effective remedies to persons ‘whose rights or freedoms’ recognised by the ICCPR have been violated (Article 2(3) ICCPR). The author backs the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (UNHRC) repeated commentary that the responsibility for investigations falls under the State party’s obligation to grant an effective remedy, including compensation and such full rehabilitation as may be possible. This investigative duty has implications for the lack of transparency surrounding drone deaths. The discrepancies between official and unofficial counts of civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes strongly suggest that the U.S. and the states on whose territory the strike occurred[1], breach this aspect of the right to life. Clearly, the opacity with which drone strikes are carried out by the U.S. raises questions around the adequacy of redress which may be obtained by victims.


[1] All of the ICCPR’s obligations articulated in this article apply equally to states parties in which the lethal drone attack takes place.