A drone is not a cop – UN rights expert concerned about technologies that depersonalise the use of force

Posted on October 27, 2014

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, UP's Prof Christof Heyns, has raised concern about the increasing use of technologies that depersonalise the use of force –including armed drones– not only on the battlefield, but also in domestic law enforcement.

During the presentation of his report* to the UN General Assembly on the use of armed drones for law enforcement, Prof Heyns provided examples of such technology that is for sale worldwide, to be used by the police and private security firms to control demonstrations, guard strategic buildings, and to hunt down escapees.

‘An armed drone, controlled by a human from a distance, can hardly do what police officers are supposed to do – use the minimum force required by the circumstances, assist those who need help, etc,’ the human rights expert said. ‘The situation becomes even more problematic when the police use increasingly autonomous weapons – that is, weapons that have on-board computers which decide on the use of force.’

According to the independent expert’s report, the protection of rights, such as the right to life and personal security, and of human dignity, weighs against the police outsourcing their work to machines, if this means the police no longer have meaningful control. ‘The decreased personal involvement of police officers in the deployment of force raises the question, among others, of who is responsible if things go wrong,’ he stressed.

‘The requirement under human rights law is not merely to distinguish between lethal and any non-lethal force. Even if it is unlikely to lead to death, the force used must still be the minimum required by the circumstances of each case,’ Prof Heyns said, pointing to an increasing number of cases in which individuals have been killed or seriously injured as a result of improper use of supposedly ‘less lethal’ weapons. 

‘Questions that are asked about the use of armed drones and autonomous systems on the battlefield intensify when they are used in ordinary policing,’ the Special Rapporteur noted. ‘The relationship between the state and those under its protection is very different from its relationship with those it regards as its enemies during armed conflict.’

Resumption of the death penalty

In his report to the UN General Assembly, Prof Heyns also expressed concern about cases of resumption and extension of the death penalty in some countries, which may constitute violations of the right to life.

The Special Rapporteur welcomed the general trend of states moving towards the abolition of the death penalty at a global level, in line with the requirements under international law, but warned that this is not a linear process, as such isolated cases show. 

‘If executions were suspended for an extended period, it is unclear how authorities can provide objective reasons for resumption at a specific point in time, or for specific prisoners,’ he said. ‘If the timing of execution and selection of prisoners for execution are decided upon at random, or are dictated by factors such as deterioration in the law and order situation, then those executions are arbitrary.’

Prof Heyns called on states that have not yet placed a moratorium on the death penalty or abolished it, to do so. ‘Moratoria need to be formally established in line with the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly on the use of the death penalty, or better yet, measures to abolish the death penalty should be enshrined in law,’ he stressed.

The upcoming UN General Assembly resolution on the death penalty, expected in December, ‘provides an important opportunity for States to move away from this form of punishment which does not belong in the modern era,’ the Special Rapporteur noted.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s report (A/69/397):http://www.ohchr.org/EN/newyork/Pages/HRreportstothe69thsessionGA.aspx




The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues.

The UN human rights experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights Council, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.  Learn more by logging on to:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx 

Check the Special Rapporteur’s previous reports to the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

- Author United Nations News

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