The United Nations Secretary-General has released a new report (A/2013/689) on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, which devotes significant attention to current drone use, transparency gaps, and emerging autonomous weapons systems. The relevant parts of the report dealing with these issues is extracted in full below.

More broadly, the report provides updated general analysis of the civilian impacts of conflicts around the world, including the deteriorating crisis in the Central African Republic, increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan, continuing violations in Mali, civilian displacement in Pakistan caused by fighting between the Pakistani military and non-State armed groups, and the severe and widespread civilian impacts of the Syria conflict. The report also sets out the Secretary-General’s views on efforts to address core challenges to civilian protection, including state and non-state actor compliance with humanitarian law, UN peacekeeping missions, humanitarian access to conflict zones, and accountability for legal violations. 

The following text contains the excerpt of the report addressing drones:

III. Continuing and emerging concerns: new weapons technologies

25. Full respect for the law is essential in all conflicts. Just as we must be concerned with the reality of today, we must also consider the future, including the implications of emerging weapons technologies for the protection of civilians.

26. One such weapons technology is the remotely piloted aircraft, or drone. I remain concerned by reports of civilian casualties resulting from armed drone attacks in Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory and Pakistan, for example, which raise questions over compliance with international human rights law and with the international humanitarian law rules of distinction, proportionality and precaution, in addition to the obligation to investigate grave violations resulting from drone attacks. I am also concerned by the continuing lack of transparency surrounding attacks involving armed drones and the consequences thereof for, among other things, accountability and the ability of victims to seek redress. That the surveillance capabilities of drones are said to significantly improve overall situational awareness before an attack, coupled with the use of precision weapons and the strict application of international humanitarian law, should reduce the risk of civilian casualties resulting from an attack. The lack of transparency concerning the use of such weapons, however, renders it extremely difficult to verify the extent to which this is the case.

27. Concerns, including important human rights concerns, have also been raised regarding the broader impact of drones on individuals, children, families and interruption of education as families keep children home from school out of fear of attacks, the undermining of religious and cultural practices as community members avoid gathering in groups and a reluctance to assist the victims of drone strikes for fear of being caught in secondary strikes.[2] As more States and, potentially, non-State armed groups possess armed drone technology, these issues will become increasingly acute.

28. The proliferation of drone technology and the increasing resort to such weapons systems will also further sharpen the asymmetry that exists in many conflicts between State and non-State parties. As technology allows one party to become increasingly removed from the battlefield, and the opportunities to fight against it are reduced, we may see technologically inferior parties increasingly resort to strategies intended to harm civilians as the most accessible targets. Moreover, drone technology increases opportunities to conduct attacks that might otherwise be considered unrealistic or undesirable through other forms of air power or the deployment of ground troops. As the ability to conduct attacks increases, so too does the threat posed to civilians.

29. In the future, these concerns, and others, may apply also to the use of  autonomous weapons systems, or what are known as “killer robots”, which, once activated, can select and engage targets and operate in dynamic and changing environments without further human intervention. Important concerns have been raised as to the ability of such systems to operate in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law. Their potential use provokes other questions of great importance: is it morally acceptable to delegate decisions about the use of lethal force to such systems? If their use results in a war crime or serious human rights violation, who would be legally responsible? If responsibility cannot be determined as required by international law, is it legal or ethical to deploy such systems? Although autonomous weapons systems as described herein have not yet been deployed and the extent of their development as a military technology remains unclear, discussion of such questions must begin immediately and not once the technology has been developed and proliferated. It must also be inclusive and allow for full engagement by United Nations actors, ICRC and civil society.

V. Recommendations
New weapons technologies

67. Relevant Member States must ensure that attacks launched by armed drones comply with international law. Furthermore, they should be more transparent about the circumstances in which drones are used, including the legal basis for specific attacks, and detail measures taken:

(a) To ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks;

(b) To track and assess civilian casualties resulting from attacks in order to identify all measures feasible to avoid civilian casualties;

(c) To investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law that are alleged to have occurred during such attacks.

68. I also urge relevant Member States to reflect on the precedent-setting nature of their use of armed drones and the future implications thereof as the technology proliferates.
[2] International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law, “Living under drones: death, injury, and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan” (2012).