Children in armed conflict – the impact of drones

The number of children killed in drone strikes, as highlighted by the work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has been the subject of on-going concern.  For example, currently it is believed that in Pakistan, 168-197 children have been killed by drone strikes.  This is combined with concerns at the broader effects of drone use on children.  In March, the APPG heard from a forensic psychologist, Dr Peter Schaapveld, about his research on the psychological impact of drone strikes in rural Yemen.  His findings highlighted cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and noted that for “nearly all of the subjects …they continue to be affected by and prevented from recovery by the presence of drones”.  For children, this was manifested in poor behaviour, a refusal to attend school and disruptions to daily life, among other issues.

On 12 June 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on children and armed conflict published her annual report, relevant to the period January to December 2012.  The report echoed the concerns noted above, namely the numbers of children killed by drones and the impact on their psychosocial health.  Particular note was made of the

mixed use of armed and surveillance drones [which] has resulted in permanent fear in some communities… hindering the ability of such communities to protect their children.

This assertion reinforced the findings of the Living Under Drones report, for example, which commented “Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”  The Special Rapporteur highlighted the impact of drone strikes on children’s access to education noting that children may stop attending school as the result of such attacks.  This issue was addressed in a recent Parliamentary Question from Dave Anderson MP (Lab) who asked the

Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether his Department has undertaken an assessment of the effects of unmanned aerial strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan on … (b) the ability of the affected communities to access education.

In response, the Government stated that it

.. has not undertaken a specific assessment of the effects of unmanned aerial strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan on (a) the livelihoods of the affected communities and (b) the ability of the affected communities to access education. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported opinion surveys in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas which in 2010 and 2011 included a question related to drone strikes.

Considering the centrality of education to enabling Afghanistan’s socio-economic development, this lack of monitoring is disappointing.

More broadly, the APPG has consistently highlighted the need for there to be improvements made to the manner in which the numbers and status of casualties killed and injured in drone strikes are collated and recorded.  Examining the 2012 Annual Report from the UN Mission to Afghanistan shows that “Of the 126 civilian deaths from aerial operations [by international military forces], 51 were children”.  While not all of these aerial attacks were from drones, children have been amongst the casualties in 2012 drone strikes in Afghanistan.  The Report notes that these are not the intended targets but rather the “result of weapons aimed directly at insurgents” though comments that in “some instances may be due to targeting errors”.  UNAMA highlights the case of a drone strike in Logar Province which killed four children, aged between 11 and 13 years.  A more recent attack, in June 2013 in Kunar Province, which UNICEF claimed killed three children, has been denied by NATO.  Media reports suggested that discussions, between the NATO coalition and the provincial governor “indicated that reports of a drone strike had been a misunderstanding”.

In this respect, the call reiterated by the Special Rapporteur is significant as she asks

relevant States to take all measures necessary to ensure that attacks involving drones comply with the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality and to conduct transparent, prompt and effective investigations when child casualties may have occurred.

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