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A retired top-ranking British judge has suggested that unmanned aircraft are "so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance", and should be banned.

Lord Bingham, retired last year as senior law lord - in other words top judge in Britain's highest court - and made his remarks to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in an interview last week. A full transcript can be read here in pdf.

According to Lord Bingham:

Are there, for example, and this goes to conflict, not post-conflict situations, weapons that ought to be outlawed? From time to time in the history of international law various weapons have been thought to be so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance. I think cluster bombs and land mines are the most recent examples. It may be — it may be, I’m not expressing a view - that unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians is a weapon the international community should decide should not be used.

The remarks have been reported by the Telegraph, under the headline "Unmanned drones could be banned, says judge". The broadsheet goes on to say that "Drones have become an important tool... However, they have been known to make errors and kill civilians... Britain has indicated that it plans to use them as weapons in the future*".

It's difficult to know exactly what the learned lord means by "unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians", but it's well known that America is waging an aggressive aerial campaign in both Afghanistan (using mainly military aircraft both manned and unmanned, in cooperation with NATO allies) and across the border in Pakistan (with strikes thought to be delivered mostly by the CIA's secret drone fleet).

The weapon most commonly used by the unmanned Predator and Reaper aircraft involved is the Hellfire laser-guided missile, a 100-pound weapon originally designed as an antitank munition. The aircraft are under the control of a human pilot at all times, and the weapons are targeted and fired by human operators.

In the context of airstrikes, the Hellfire is relatively surgical, but nonetheless there have been many reports of civilians being killed in Hellfire strikes by unmanned craft. In one particularly bloody series of strikes recently, US drone operators were thought to have killed as many as seventy people in Pakistan.

However, drones and Hellfires pale into insignificance against the weapons dropped and bodycount racked up by ordinary manned bombers. In just one incident during May, a US B-1 strategic bomber (manned) dropped no less than five 500-pounder and three blockbusting 2000-pounder bombs on an Afghan village. These four tons of munitions utterly destroyed a mosque, a shrine and various other buildings, and killed a reported 140 people.

Looking back to earlier modern campaigns like the invasion of Iraq and the Kosovo intervention against Serbia, manned bombers dropped munitions by the tens of kilotons and killed civilians - not to mention inoffensive conscripts - in the many thousands.

Against this sort of background, it seems more than a little puzzling to hear one of the nation's finest legal minds suggesting that unmanned aircraft are somehow "so cruel as to be beyond human tolerance", whereas manned bombers are presumably OK. Particularly as the unmanned aircraft's use of weapons is completely under the control of human operators anyway. ®

Bootnote

*Actually Blighty has been doing so for some time.

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