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U.N. Report Highly Critical of U.S. Drone Attacks

By CHARLIE SAVAGE

June 02, 2010 "
New York Times" - -WASHINGTON — A senior United Nations official said on Wednesday that the growing use of armed drones by the United States to kill terrorism suspects is undermining global constraints on the use of military force. He warned that the American example will lead to a chaotic world as the new weapons technology inevitably spreads.

In a 29-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the official, Philip Alston,the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, called on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen, outside the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report — the most extensive effort by the United Nations to grapple with the legal implications of armed drones — also proposed a summit of “key military powers” to clarify legal limits on such killings.

In an interview, Mr. Alston, said the United States appears to think that it is “facing a unique threat from transnational terrorist networks” that justifies its effort to put forward legal justifications that would make the rules “as flexible as possible.”

But that example, he said, could quickly lead to a situation in which dozens of countries are carrying out “competing drone attacks” outside their borders against people “labeled as terrorists by one group or another.”

“I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe,” Mr. Alston said in an accompanying statement. “But this strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

Mr. Alston is scheduled to present his findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday. While not legally binding, his report escalates the volume of international concerns over a tactic that has become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against Al Qaeda and its allies.

The New York Times reported last week that Mr. Alston’s report would call on the United States to stop using Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones, instead limiting the technology to regular military forces because they are open and publicly accountable for their conduct — including in investigating missile strikes that kill civilians.

A few days later, news emerged that a C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas was believed to have killed Al Qaeda’s third-ranking leader, in an apparent major success. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Alston acknowledged that the United States could make “a reasonable legal argument” that a strike against such a figure in those circumstances was lawful and appropriate, but he argued that the escalating number of drone strikes in Pakistan still raised concerns.

The recent strike “is a very convenient one because there you have got a very clearly acceptable target, but we’re not told who the other strikes are against and what efforts are being made to comply with the rules,” he said.

The report calls on host governments like Pakistan to publicly disclose the scope and limits of any permission they have granted for drone strikes on their soil. It also called on drone operators like the United States to disclose the legal justification for such killings, the criteria and safeguards it uses when selecting targets, and its process for investigating attacks that kill civilians.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the report, but pointed to a speech in March by the State Department legal adviser, Harold Koh, that partly outlined the Obama administration’s legal rationale.

Mr. Koh said the United States obeys legal limits on the use of force when selecting targets, and he defended drone killings as lawful because of the armed conflict with Al Qaeda and because of the nation’s right to self defense.

“A state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force,” Mr. Koh said. “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.”

The United Nations report agrees that drone killings can be lawful in traditional battlefield combat. But it says that the United States is stretching the limits of who can be lawfully targeted.

For example, it criticized the United States for targeting drug lords in Afghanistan suspected of giving money to the Taliban, a policy it said was contrary to the traditional understanding of the laws of war. Similarly, it said, terrorism financiers, propagandists and other non-fighters should face criminal prosecution, not summary killing.

It also said that a targeted killing outside of an armed conflict “is almost never likely to be legal.” In particular, it rejected “pre-emptive self-defense” as a justification for killing terrorism suspects far from combat zones.

“This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the U.N. Charter,” Mr. Alston said. “If invoked by other states, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

The report noted that Russia and Israel also claimed a right in recent years to target people it deems terrorism suspects, and Mr. Alston said that 40 other countries already have drone technology — with several already seeking armed versions.

Warning that the technology is making targeted killings much easier and frequent, the report also called for major military nations to meet with human rights specialists to hash out agreement on murky legal issues, like when a farmer who sets roadside bombs at night may be targeted.

The report also raised concerns about the risk of killing civilians, arguing that it is harder for drone operators to understand who is an insurgent than it is for ground forces, who face a hard enough task. Moreover, drone operators may not have the same respect for the laws of war as soldiers in the field who have “been subjected to the risks and rigors of battle,” it said.

“Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing,” it said.

Last week, the military released a report faulting military drone operators for “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting that led to an airstrike in February that killed 23 Afghan civilians, including women and children.

   
 

 

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