On 21 August 2013, the 2nd United States (US) Circuit Court of Appeal reached a decision on a decade long putative class action suits brought on behalf of individuals harmed by the South African apartheid regime. The suits were originally initiated by two groups of plaintiffs, the Balintulo (or Khulumani plaintiffs) and the Ntsebeza plaintiffs against corporate defendants (namely: Daimler, Ford, and IBM). Plaintiffs asserted that the South African subsidiary companies of the defendants aided and abetted violations of customary international law committed by the (then) South African government. It was claimed inter alia that subsidiary companies had sold cars and computers to the South African government, thus facilitating race-based depredations and injustices, including rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. A legal basis for the US court’s jurisdiction was the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a famous part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, conferring federal jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”. The ATS remained dormant nearly for two centuries until it spectacularly entered the stage before 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeal in a Filartiga v Pena-Irala wherein Paraguay citizens were allowed to sue a former Paraguayan police officer allegedly involved in an extrajudicial killing of a Paraguayan dissident’s son in Paraguay. The decision in Filartiga led to a dramatic rise in international human rights litigation in US courts, involving not only suits against private individuals but also against corporate entities for aiding and abetting violations of the law of nations. There were instances of such litigations ending with profitable settlements. For example, in Abdullahi v Pfizer Inc., Pfizer has reportedly agreed to pay $75 million as compensation for illegal clinical trials in Nigeria. Similarly in Wiwa v Shell Oil Co., faced with claims of complicity in murder, torture, and other crimes related to oil production in the Niger Delta, the Shell provided $15.5 million as compensation to those affected.
On 15 March 2013 Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the United States (US) Court of Appeals Circuit in American Civil Liberties Union Foundation v Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) dismissed the CIA’s standard Glomar response to its expanded and clandestine programme to carry out targeted killings on suspected terrorist. Barely two months later, a High Court in Peshawar, Pakistan, held that drone strikes (and their continued use) “are a blatant violation of Basic Human Rights and are against the [United Nations] (UN) Charter, the UN General Assembly Resolution …and a violation of the sovereignty [of Pakistan]”. Whereas not fully specific on the human rights instruments violated, these judicial pronouncements point to an increasing dissatisfaction by the international community on the lack of a concise and regulated use of the “CIA’s angry birds”.
This note seeks to merely highlight possible violations of various rights including the right to life, right to fair trial as well as the right to privacy, which are all enshrined in the African Charter; and call upon the African Union (AU), through its various organs, to promote more transparency on the use of drones and foster the enactment of a continental regulatory framework to govern the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles by western nations on African soil.
The use of drones in African’s airspace has been on a steep rise. The latest documented incident was on 27 May 2013 when Al-Shabaab allegedly shot down a UAS Camcopter S-100 near the town of Buulo Mareer, southern Somalia. The London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that over 200 persons, mostly non-combatants, have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia since 2003. American drone support bases have been reportedly set up in Arba Minch (Ethiopia), Seychelles, Camp Lemonnier (Djibouti) and recently in Somali’s shell-crated international airport in Mogadishu. A 2012 study by Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law indicated that there were more civilians and innocent residents killed in the drone strikes than militants throughout the period of the drone program.
On 16 March 2013, Zimbabwean voters overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution, which contains a right to life provision that dramatically scaled back the scope of the death penalty. The new constitution restricts the death penalty only to aggravated homicide and requires a judge to consider all mitigating factors in order to dispense a death sentence. The death penalty is a prohibited sentence for women and persons under the age 21 or over the age 70. The new constitution also establishes a constitutional right for prisoners to seek commutation or pardon from the executive. The death penalty was abolished for non-homicide offences, including treason, a notoriously politicised charge in recent years. Newspaper reports indicated that the Cabinet would review the cases of each of the current 72 death row inmates, even though a new hangman was hired in February 2013 after a twelve-year long search. The two women on death row would have their sentences automatically commuted.