This morning, the UN Human Rights Council voted to approve a Pakistan-sponsored resolution (A/HRC/25/L.32) entitled, “Ensuring use of remotely piloted aircraft or armed drones in counter-terrorism and military operations in accordance with international law, including international human rights and humanitarian law.” As that (lengthy) title suggests, the resolution concerns only one weapons platform: remotely piloted aircraft. It passed with 27 in favor, 6 against, and 14 abstentions (see the informative breakdown of state votes below).
The most important substantive element in the Resolution is a provision on transparency and investigations, which
“[c]alls upon States to ensure transparency in their records on the use of remotely piloted aircraft or armed drones and to conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of a violation to international law caused by their use”
The most important procedural element is a decision by the Council “to organize an interactive panel discussion of experts at its twenty-seventh session” on the issue of armed drones (i.e. it is slated for September 2014).
On the eve before the vote, Human Rights Watch published an open-letter outlining reasons for states to vote in in favor of the text, and the United States government issued a statement outlining its reasons for opposing the resolution and urging other states to do the same.
Earlier this month, the U.S. had decided to sit out of the talks at the UNHRC concerning the draft resolution. In response to a reporter’s question, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that the administration did not “see the Human Rights Council as the right forum for … discussion narrowly focused on a single weapons delivery system. That has not been a traditional focus area for the HRC, in part for reasons of expertise. We do not see how refinements to the text can address this core concern.” (To which the reporter asking the question responded, “but that’s a really kind of bizarre answer.”) The real reason may be more about genuine concerns that the resolution and its associated expert panel will become politicized: As leading human rights investigator Letta Tayler wrote recently,
“Publicly, the US says it opposes the resolution because ‘we just don’t see the Human Rights Council as the right forum for discussion narrowly focused on a single weapons delivery system.’ Privately, some Western diplomats told us they fear the expert panel will become politicised.”
Here is the breakdown of votes by state:
In favor (27): Algeria, Argentina, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Gabon, Indonesia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Against (6): France, Japan, Republic of Korea, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United Kingdom, and United States of America.
Abstentions (14): Austria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Italy, Montenegro, Namibia, Romania, and United Arab Emirates.
As close observers of the Council know, a key dynamic in these votes — especially the first time a resolution passes — involves states in the Abstention category. Those are often delegations that might have moved into one of the other camps–and may be moved to do so in future iterations of the resolution. (A good case study of such voting patterns over time is the anti-death penalty resolution.) Notably, during the period of explanations of votes, Germany, speaking on behalf of itself and the Czech Republic, suggested an ambivalence and not a very strong reason for abstaining rather than favoring the resolution. The reason they gave: redundancy in the work of the Council. According to the summary record, Germany stated: “They welcomed the transparent and open negotiation process on the draft resolution and believed that an appropriate framework was already in place. They had therefore argued in favour of avoiding any duplication of work.”
What does the future hold for states that abstained today? If the expert panel process is indeed politicized, the United States may be able to pull more states into its camp in the future. And if the process avoids such pitfalls, the US will likely find itself in a shrinking minority.