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UN launches investigation into deadly drone attacks

A US Predator drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar airport in Afghanistan on June 13, 2010
A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in Afghanistan on June 13, 2010. A United Nations investigation into the impact of drone strikes and targeted killings on civilians was launched in London

The UN's envoy on counter-terrorism and human rights launched an investigation on Thursday into the impact of drone strikes on civilians, aimed at securing accountability when attacks have gone "badly wrong".

Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer and United Nations special rapporteur, said the huge expansion in the technology behind unmanned planes, and consequently their increasing use, required a new legal framework.

"The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay, and its use in theatres of conflict is a reality with which the world must contend," he told reporters in London.

"It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law."

CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 3,461 people since 2004, according to Britain's Bureau of Investigative Journalism, up to 891 of them civilians, including 176 children.

The UN envoy's investigation will focus on 25 case studies of attacks in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Somalia and Yemen.

UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, speaks in London on January 24, 2013
UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, speaks as he launches an inquiry into the civilian impact of drones at a press conference in central London on January 24, 2013.

Its main objective is to examine evidence that drone strikes can cause disproportionate civilian casualties, and come up with recommendations on the duty of states to investigate such allegations.

Emmerson said his investigation aims to secure "accountability and reparation where things can be shown to have gone badly wrong, with potentially grave consequences for civilians".

Official US figures show that Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan fired some 506 missiles in 2012, up 72 percent on 2011.

But Emmerson said the inquiry would not just focus on the United States and Israel, as 51 states now had the technology to carry missiles on drones.

He said he could imagine terror groups getting their hands on drones in the "not too distant future".

Highlighting the problems, Emmerson said the legal situation in Afghanistan, where there is a recognised international armed conflict, was very different to the Palestinian territories.

In Yemen, it might be considered that there was an internal armed conflict in some parts of the country but not in others.

The 25 case studies will be examined to see if there was "a plausible allegation of unlawful killing that should trigger the international law obligations to investigate", Emmerson said.

He will then put any allegations to the relevant states for a response before reporting to the UN General Assembly in October.

He said he would make recommendations for further UN action "if that proves to be justified by the findings".

Emmerson added that he was "optimistic" of receiving cooperation from Pakistan, Yemen, the United States and Britain.

The inquiry will be based in Geneva with back-up from legal staff in London.