Reapers and Predators - the grimly-named missile-firing drones remotely piloted by American agents with `Playstation mentalities' - blur the laws of war and threaten a new era of assassinations without accountability, warns the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.
President Barack Obama's escalating war against Islamic extremists inside Pakistan is increasingly reliant on drones - flown by CIA agents often half a world away from computer consoles - and missile strikes by pilot-less drones now average more than two a week.
"Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries," said Philip Alston, the author of the report on drone use.
Mr. Alston, an international law scholar and human rights expert, concluded there was nothing inherently criminal about firing missiles from drones, but warned that without clear rules and accountability, it could usher in a new era of chaotic, long-distance and anonymous warfare.
Russia, Israel and Sri Lanka have all used drones to launch air strikes, but the United States - with hundreds of drones ranging from high-flying jets capable of patrolling for days to hand-launched, short-range versions little larger than toys - has more combat power in its burgeoning drone fleet than most countries have with manned warplanes.
The CIA, chosen to fly drone U.S. missions over Pakistan to preserve a veneer of deniability for the uniformed military, claims its targeted assassinations of known extremists are legal and carefully monitored.
Although the Obama administration doesn't openly announce strikes, its officials do quietly confirm successful killings, such as the claimed assassination earlier this week of a senior al-Qaeda operational planner.
More than 40 countries - including Canada - either have or plan to buy large drones capable of firing air-to-ground missiles. ``The appeal of armed drones is clear: especially in hostile terrain, they permit targeted killings at little to no risk to the State personnel carrying them out, and they can be operated remotely," Mr. Alston's report said.
The report - the most critical yet of the fast-growing use of drones - doesn't conclude the missile-firing Reapers and Predators are outside the laws of war.
"A missile fired from a drone is no different from any other commonly used weapon, including a gun fired by a soldier or a helicopter or gunship that fires missiles.
"The critical legal question is the same for each weapon: whether its specific use complies with IHL (International Humanitarian Law.) However, the nature of the weapons system, with remote targeting, no consideration of proportionate force or how to deal with an intended victim who attempts to surrender and the vexed questions of the use of armed force on the sovereign terror Tory of states - such as Pakistan - which publicly claim to oppose them, raises difficult new questions.
"Furthermore, because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, ... there is a risk of developing a 'Playstation' mentality to killing," warned Mr. Alston, in his 29-page report to the to the UN Human Rights Council.