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Thursday, January 24, 2013

UN to investigate legality of drone strikes and civilian casualties


The UN will launch a formal investigation into the legality of drone strikes and also of the casualties that result from them.
The announcement came as there is a report that the latest US drone strike in Yemen is claimed to have mistakenly killed two children. Ben Emmerson, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism said at a press conference in London that he will lead a group of international specialists who will examine drone attacks in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan by the CIA and Pentagon. However, the group will also examine drone use by UK and US forces in Afghanistan, as well as Israel's use of drones against Palestinians.
The senior UK lawyer will work with international criminal lawyers, a senior Pakistani judge, and a leading UK forensic pathologist as well as other experts. A serving judge-advocate with the US military will be "assisting the inquiry in his personal capacity." More about the members of the team can be found at the end of this article.
Emmerson told reporters at the new conference:
’Those states using this technology and those on whose territory it is used are under an international law obligation to establish effective independent and impartial investigations into any drone attack in which it is plausibly alleged that civilian casualties were sustained.’
Neither the US nor others have carried out such investigations so the UN is doing so as a last resort. The UK Minister of Defence is already said to be co-operating with the investigation. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice has indicated that Washington "has not ruled out full co-operation". We shall see. The US has refused so far even to admit officially that any such program exists.
Back in May 2010, Philip Alston had already presented to the UN a detailed report on the legal questions of targeted killing. Most of the recommendations he suggests have not been carried out by the Obama administration nor anyone else.
The UN Human Rights Council is taking action after a number of nations including, Russia, China, and Pakistan requested action be taken on covert drone strikes. Emmerson said:
‘It’s a response to the fact that there’s international concern rising exponentially, surrounding the issue of remote targeted killings through the use of unmanned vehicles.’
The group is expected to make recommendations to the UN general assembly this fall. The team will also recommend further UN action should it be justified by the findings of the inquiry. Of course nothing will get through the UN security council unless the US approves it, so there will not be any teeth in what the UN says or does. If there are any UN resolutions condemning the attacks, they will come from the General Council. Many countries ignores those resolutions since they are interpreted as advisory and consdiered non-binding, whenever they demand something a country does not want to do.
A particular area the inquiry may examine is the alleged practice of the CIA of deliberately targeting rescuers and even funeral goers in Pakistan strikes, a practice revealed in an investigation by the Bureau for the SundayTimes. In October 2012, Emmerson said:
‘The Bureau has alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. Christof Heyns [UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing] … has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.’
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised the inquiry and requested that the US cooperate with and aid the invetigators. A spokesperson noted:
‘Whether it does or not will show whether it holds itself to the same obligation to co-operate with UN human rights investigations that it urges on other countries”
The Obama administration has rejected requests from the ACLU for information on its targeted killing programs or the basis for the legality of its drone attacks. The ACLU made a Freedom of Information Act request two years ago on January 13, 2010. Two years later having gone to court as well, the group still has not been able to get the information.
The Obama administration will have to decide whether to cooperate with the UN investigation. Perhaps it will in order to try and influence the investigation but on the other hand it may decide just to take a hard line as it has so far all along about releasing any information except what could be used for propaganda purposes.


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