A recently released report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights calls upon the United States and other responsible governments to publicly investigate civilian deaths at the hands of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.
The investigation by Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson examined “drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing” involving Pakistan, Yemen, the United States and the United Kingdom. Sarah Knuckey, the Director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at NYU School of Law, wrote a summary of the report outlining the conclusions.
The Special Rapporteur first presented an interim report to the UN General Assembly in October 2013, discussing government secrecy, and detailing the legal obligations of states involved in drone attacks. His work was based on ten years of research done by previous Special Rapporteur’s. During a recent UN inter-governmental debate about the 2013 reports many states for the first time voiced their objection to the drone programs and called for reform.
The latest report by Ben Emmerson examined 30 individual cases in which civilian harm (defined as death, injury, or instances where civilians were “put at immediate risk”) took place. The cases stemmed from reports in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza. Some of the cases are more well known such as the October 2011 strike that killed 16 year old US citizen Abdulrahman al-Alwaki, and the December 2013 “wedding convoy” bombing that reportedly killed up to 15 civilians. The report details the possibility of over 300 civilian deaths.
According to a United Nations report from 2014 the Unites States drone program is increasing civilian deaths in foreign nations. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report claims civilian drone deaths in Afghanistan tripled in 2013, resulting in 45 civilian deaths by drone in 2013. UNAMA suggests the total could be higher since there is difficulty in establishing the type of aircraft launching the attack.
Violations of International Law?
The second portion of Emmerson’s report focuses on legal issues surrounding the United States and allies decision to bomb sovereign nations in pursuit of “terrorists”. The Special Rapporteur states that additional international discussion is needed to remedy legal issues that are subject to disputed interpretation or where the actions “challenged established legal norms”. Specifically the Special Rapporteur questions the legality of a state encroaching on territory of another country with the intent to kill a person.
The Special Rapporteur makes two recommendations for moving forward on the controversial topic. He calls upon the states involved in the 30 strikes to publicly investigate and explain them. He also recommends the states whose territories were under attack to “provide as much information as possible”. Emmerson’s final recommendation is for the Human Rights Council to establish a panel of experts to examine the legal issues raised by drones and targeted killings. The report states that the governments initiating the attacks are now legally obligated to explain the deaths.
The Obama Administration Ignores the Reports
Recently Foreign Policy reported that the Obama Administration boycotted a recent discussion on drone strikes held by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Foreign Policy obtained a draft of a Pakistani resolution that aims to create transparency and establish
“an interactive panel discussion” on drone use. Pakistan also hopes the resolution would lead nations to “conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use.” On March 19th the Human Rights Council discusses the draft resolution for the third time, the United States was not represented.
The move is reminiscent of the Bush Administration. Citing concerns that oppressive states would shift the focus disproportionately onto Israel, the Bush administration also refused to participate in the council.
While President Obama chooses to ignore growing international concern, activists around the globe are not ignoring him. On Tuesday as Obama prepared to speak at European Union and NATO summits in Brussels, Belgium, activists with Amnesty International held demonstrations calling attention to the United States’ human rights violations.
Wearing orange jumpsuits, the protesters condemned Obama for failing to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, as well as his drone assassination program. “Even if Mr. Obama has promised once again to be more transparent in the use of drones, unfortunately it is still going on, they are still killing civilians,” stated Philippe Hensmans, the director of Amnesty International in Belgium.
The United States drone program and targeted assassinations have even drawn the criticism of former Obama supporters. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” former President Jimmy Carter said the United States’ use of drones is “extremely liberalized and I think abused by our own intelligence agencies.”
While the President may have the privilege of ignoring the reports and the deaths that come as a result of his decisions, those affected by the programs are not so lucky. For the parents holding their dead children, or the soldier who has to launch the missiles, or the United States citizen that must live in fear of retribution, these attacks represent a very real and present danger. Until the United States dismantles its dangerous, and illegal program of drone bombings and targeted assassinations, we will continue to see new generations raised to despise the Western World and the Global War on Terror will continue to rage.