Use of drones is a war crime and must be stopped, says charity

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 11 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6820
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

The UK charity Medact has called for the government to stop purchasing, developing, and deploying armed unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as “drones.”

In its report Medact said that, in addition to the deaths and injuries of civilians caused by drones, evidence was increasing that living under the constant threat of drone attack can lead to psychological damage and that operators of the remote devices can also experience psychological stress.1

There is also evidence that the presence of drones had contributed to the disruption of public health programmes, such as polio vaccinations in parts of Pakistan.

The use of drones had risen exponentially over the past decade, said the report. For the first time in history it was possible to attack an enemy thousands of kilometres away without fear of retaliation. Yet international law had failed to keep pace with technology, said the charity, which works on issues related to conflict, poverty, and the environment.

Although “specific conventions relating to war on land and at sea exist in international law, no such conventions apply to aerial warfare,” it said.

Only three countries are known to have used drones to date: the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq; Israel in Gaza; and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan. However, more than 75 countries were thought to possess some type of drone, either for surveillance or attack.

Since its first drone strike in June 2008 the UK is believed to have carried out a further 280 attacks in Afghanistan to the end of May 2012, and there are plans to double the UK’s fleet. Since Barack Obama took office as US president in January 2009, the number of drone attacks has increased from 44 in Pakistan over the five years before he was elected to more than 250 since.

Spending on drones was expected to rise from $5.9bn (£3.7bn; €4.5bn) to $11.3bn in the next decade, said the report, with the US alone planning to spend $32bn on drones over the next eight years.

The UK Ministry of Defence keeps a tight control of information on drone attacks, said the report. Estimates of the number of civilians who have been killed by drones are most accurate for Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that drones have caused between 2955 and 4353 deaths, including up to 210 children, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

However, most deaths go unreported, said the report. It adds, “The psychological impact on civilians—including many children—who live under the constant threat of drones is unacceptable, and is not taken into account by those who use them. Evidence is also emerging of damage to the mental health of the young men who operate them. Watching a target on a computer screen for days, tracking his every move, then pressing a button that will kill him and possibly his family or friends, can create ‘physical exhaustion,’ ‘high operational stress’ and ‘clinical distress.’”

There is also evidence that “medical personnel and others who arrive at the scene to assist the injured have been targeted in drone attacks,” said the report. “This is a war crime.”

Medact has called for greater parliamentary and public scrutiny of how drone strikes are chosen and why. It has also called for the government to work with the United Nations and other organisations “to include drones in the development of arms limitation treaties, or to make them the subject of specific legislation to limit and eventually stop their development, use and proliferation.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6820


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