GENEVA - A United Nations investigation finds a significant reduction in the use of armed drones by the United States in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] of Pakistan in 2013. The report, which has been submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, paints a much bleaker picture, however, of the use of drones in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer and special investigator on counterterrorism and human rights, said there were 27 recorded drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas last year. That's down from a peak of 128 in 2010.

“But perhaps most significantly, for the first time in nine years there were no reports of civilian casualties during 2013 in the FATA area of Pakistan," he said. "The diplomatic and political efforts of Pakistan to bring these strikes to a halt, so as to enable peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban to take place, appear to have borne fruit.” 

Emmerson said that so far this year, no drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan.

As for Afghanistan, the United Nations reported a three-fold increase in the number of civilian casualties last year compared to 2012. Emmerson said drones accounted for almost 40 percent of civilian casualties as a result of aerial attacks by pro-government forces.

In Yemen, he said the frequency of armed drone strikes intensified during the closing months of 2013, and it resulted in a sharp escalation in the number of reported civilian casualties.

Emmerson said drones, if used correctly and in compliance with international law, can prove to be a military asset.

“Drone technology allows almost real time, 24-hour surveillance and that, therefore, it improves the situational awareness of military commanders, so that if it is used strictly in accordance with the requirements of the law, drone technology is capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict,” he said.

Emmerson has been investigating civilian casualties arising from the use of armed drones for 14 months. He examined 37 drone strikes in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza. In the end, he reduced the sample list of 37 strikes to 30 where he was able to find credible sources to back up reported civilian casualties.

Emmerson noted, however, that the mere existence of credible allegations of civilian deaths or injuries does not necessarily establish any violation of international law, or that a war crime has been committed.