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2017 | UNIDIR Report Increasing Transparency, Oversight and Accountability of Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

This study by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)[1] highlights key concern about the proliferation and use of armed drones in the context of military operations, and suggests ways to strengthen shared understandings of transparency, oversight and accountability.

Although some states have undertaken efforts to clarify and strengthen the application of existing mechanisms to address issues related to transfers and holdings of armed drones, such as the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, these mechanisms do not amount to an effective response to the many problems concerning the use of armed drones.

The use of armed drones by covert armed forces in ways that do not permit sufficient transparency or accountability is a major concern. Of similarly great concern is the fact that armed drones are increasingly being used in situations characterized by a troubling lack of clarity as to how international norms apply, which has a bearing on who is considered a legitimate target in a given circumstance. In the context of this troubling vagueness, some states have resorted to expansive interpretations that are not supported by current international law. This lack of transparency can impair independent oversight, for instance by courts or national legislative bodies, yet transparency and accountability are important to ensure civilian protection and investigation of possible human rights violation. In short: they are essential to ensuring access to justice for victims of drone strikes.

The authors suggest that accountability would be enhanced by greater openness of States about:
a) their national policy applicable to the use of armed drones;
b) - without prejudice to national security - strike-specific information such as the legal basis for each use of force and the number of casualties, including civilians, and
c) their oversight and accountability mechanisms, including their processes to ensure investigation of alleged violations of international norms.

In addition, states should take responsibility for wrong-doing, for example by providing compensation for injuries.

United Nations must take the lead

To enhance civilian protection, ensure the rule of law, and help maintain international stability, the study concludes that the international community should adopt a United Nations General Assembly resolution that highlights both use and proliferation concerns about armed drones policies and practices, and that establishes a mandate for the development of common standards in order to improve the transparency, oversight and accountability of armed drones in all their aspects.


[1] UNIDIR is an autonomous institute within the United Nations that conducts research on disarmament and security.