UN investigator decries US use of killer drones

Published: June 19, 2012
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Investigator calls on Washington to justify policy. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Investigator calls on Washington to justify policy. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

GENEVA: A UN investigator has called on the Obama administration to justify its policy of assassinating rather than capturing al Qaeda or Taliban suspects, increasingly with the use of unmanned drone aircraft that also take civilian lives.

Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, urged Washington to clarify the basis under international law of the policy, in a report issued overnight to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The 47-member Geneva forum is to hold a debate later on Tuesday.

The US military has conducted drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, in addition to conventional raids and air strikes, according to Heyns, a South African jurist serving in the independent post.

“Disclosure of these killings is critical to ensure accountability, justice and reparation for victims or their families,” he said in a 28-page report.

“The (US) government should clarify the procedures in place to ensure that any targeted killing complies with international humanitarian law and human rights and indicate the measures or strategies applied to prevent casualties, as well as the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective and independent public investigation of alleged violations.”

Citing figures from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, he said US drone strikes killed at least 957 people in Pakistan in 2010 alone. Thousands have been killed in 300 drone strikes there since 2004, 20 percent of whom are believed to be civilians.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week defended Washington’s use of drone strikes, days after one killed one of al Qaeda’s most powerful figures in Pakistan, Libyan-born Abu Yahya al-Libi.

Dramatic increase

“Although figures vary widely with regard to drone attack estimates, all studies concur on one important point: there has been a dramatic increase in their use over the past three years,” Heyns said.

“While these attacks are directed at individuals believed to be leaders or active members of al Qaeda or the Taliban, in the context of armed conflict (e.g. in Afghanistan), in other instances, civilians have allegedly also perished in the attacks in regions where it is unclear whether there was an armed conflict or not (e.g. in Pakistan),” he said.

Human rights law requires that every effort be made to arrest a suspect, in line with the “principles of necessity and proportionality on the use of force”, the investigator said.

There had been no official or satisfactory response to concerns laid out by his predecessor, Australian expert Philip Alston, in a 2009 report on his investigation a year earlier.

“The Special Rapporteur again requests the Government to clarify the rules that it considers to cover targeted killings … (and) reiterates his predecessor’s recommendation that the government specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture ‘human targets’ and whether the State in which the killing takes places has given consent,” Heyns said.

Pakistani Ambassador Zamir Akram took the floor in Monday’s opening session to say that his country consistently maintained that the use of drones was illegal and violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, “not to mention being counter-productive”.

“Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, have been murdered in these indiscriminate attacks,” he said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who made an official visit to Pakistan this month, said in a speech on Monday it was “unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities”.

States had an international obligation to ensure that attacks comply with international law and to conduct transparent, credible inquiries, she added.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Imran Con
    Jun 19, 2012 - 4:09PM

    “unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities”

    That alone makes the inquiry media fodder. If it’s unclear, then the response can simply contradict statements and shape a valid scenario as there is just as much proof of that response as there is for others claiming the opposite.

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  • anoni
    Jun 19, 2012 - 4:56PM

    Speed of international Human right. Took them 10 year to see this wrong doing. And they call them self human right champion. No wonder this world is such a mess

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  • Jun 19, 2012 - 6:05PM

    Mr. Heyns did NOT “decry” the use of drones but requested that Washington “clarify the basis under international law” for their use. As an appointee of the Secretary-General, he is probably aware that Washington has invoked the self-defense clause to justify drone strikes but that Washington has not openly invoked UNSCR 1373, which empowers countries to attack terrorists if their host countries refuse to do so.

    Invoking UNSCR 1373 openly would move at least review matters from the secretive U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee to the Security Council itself, where the Secretary-General can exercise more authority – and where there is much more opportunity to embarrass Pakistan for its terror-supporting activities.

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  • AnisAqeel
    Jun 19, 2012 - 7:39PM

    Drones should stop but who will stop terrorists? Pakistan!!!

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  • Sexton Blake
    Jun 19, 2012 - 8:16PM

    @Solomon2:
    It should be realized that the legality of Resolution UNSCR 1373 is questionable at best. It is not clear who introduced UNSCR 1373 and it only required 5 countries to get it through. The five countries are the ones who go around dominating the world and therefore they have a vested interest in attacking anybody who disagrees with them, and they can justify their attacks merely by the inference that the person or persons killed were terrorists. They do not have to worry about little things such as just cause or proof, and the poor wretches they kill are in no position to bring charges against them. On the other hand Resolution 1456 does attempt to protect international human rights, and expects the five countries to respect their obligations under international law. By ignoring R.1456 America, rather than Pakistan, should be embarrassed, but unfortunately this is not the case, and the deaths of a few million people over the last ten years establishes that this is so.

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  • Kanwal
    Jun 19, 2012 - 11:50PM

    When Abu Yahya al-Libi died the umpteeth time in a drone attack, the impotent UN people finally woke up. I wonder how many will have to die how many times to make sure they take some action?
    And this is amazing: “where it is unclear whether there was an armed conflict or not (e.g. in Pakistan)”

    So that means if there was an armed conflict because of which US attacked through Drones, there may be a chance US could get away with using Drones? Amazing. Recommend

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