Drones are now the world's weapon of choice, U.N. expert says

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. A U.N. expert on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013 called on the United States to reveal the number of civilians it believes have been killed by American drone strikes targeting Islamic militants. U.N. Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson said that preliminary information gathered for a new report indicated more than 450 civilians may have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, but more work needs to be done to confirm the figures.
AP

Remotely-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles -- or drones -- have already transformed the nature of war, and the debate on the moral, legal and tactical issues that drones present has increased.

At the White House last week, President Barack Obama got an earful from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who called for an end to the drone strikes that have targeted al Qaeda and militant figures in Pakistan.

At the U.N., a special rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, issued an interim report on his international investigation into drone strikes and targeted killings. The international community heard the results of the inquiry into allegations that the increasing use of remotely piloted aircraft has caused disproportionate civilian casualties.

Emmerson told CBS News that both drone use and civilian casualties have increased.

Last May, President Obama, at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, said that as part of a realignment of counterterrorism policy, he would curtail the use of drones, which, according to Defense Department figures, increased more than 40-fold, from 167 aircraft in 2002 to nearly 7,500 in the past few years.

The U.N. report, based on an evaluation of drone attacks carried out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Gaza, is not a condemnation of drones attacks.

Rather, the Emmerson report concludes: "If used in strict compliance with the principles of humanitarian law, they can reduce the risk of civilian casualties by significantly improving overall situational awareness. The ability of drones to loiter and gather intelligence for long periods before a strike, coupled with the use of precision-guided munitions, is therefore a positive advantage from a humanitarian law perspective. "

The report goes on to quote the International Committee of the Red Cross to say: "Any weapon that makes it possible to carry out more precise attacks, and helps avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, should be given preference over weapons that do not."

Briefly stated, Emmerson told CBS News that drones are the world's weapons of choice.

The concern expressed in Emmerson's report is about the lack of transparency and accountability.

The U.S. military strike on Monday on the al Qaeda-linked militant group, Al-Shabab, targeted an explosives expert and another senior leader. Whether or not the strike involved a drone or not has not been confirmed, but it was carried out by the U.S. military, not the CIA, CBS News correspondent David Martin reported.

Drones may be the technological answer to terrorism if civilian casualties may be avoided, as far as the U.N. report is concerned. But, as a cautionary note, several experts warned that other states are beginning to develop the sophisticated technology. In September, Iran unveiled an unmanned attack aircraft it described as its most sophisticated drone to date, and more countries are exploring the technology.

"There is an urgent and imperative need to seek agreement between States," Emmerson's U.N. report concluded. "There is no need for new law."

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.