The United Nations will Investigate Civilian Deaths in US Drone Strikes

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism writes

The United Nations plans to set up a special investigation unit examining claims of civilian deaths in individual US covert drone strikes.

UN investigators have been critical of US targeted killings since they began in 2002. The new Geneva-based unit will also look at the legality of the programme.

The latest announcement, by UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC, was made in a speech earlier this week at Harvard law school. Emmerson, who monitors counter-terrorism for the UN, previously called in August for the US to hand over video of each covert drone attack.

The London-based lawyer became the second senior UN official in recent months to label the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers and funeral-goers with drones ‘a war crime’. That practice was first exposed by the Bureau for the Sunday Times in February 2012.

‘[It is] 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 … has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view,’ said Emmerson.

‘Last resort’
Both Heyns and Emmerson have become increasingly vocal in recent months, even as the United States attempts to put its targeted killings scheme on a more formal footing.

‘If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms… then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act. Together with my colleague Christof Heyns, [the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings], I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [UN] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks,’ Emmerson said in his speech.

The unit will also look at ‘other forms of targeted killing conducted in counter-terrorism operations, in which it is alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted, and to seek explanations from the states using this technology and the states on whose territory it is used. [It] will begin its work early next year and will be based in Geneva.

‘The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US,’ he added. ’The first-term Obama administration initially retreated from this approach, but over the past 18 months it has begun to rear its head once again, in briefings by administration officials seeking to provide a legal justification for the drone programme of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.’

Emmerson singled out both President Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney for criticism. ‘It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue has not even featured during their presidential elections campaigns, and got no mention at all in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones.’

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Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

16 Responses

  1. I completely agree, innocent lives are being lost in a country that we are ‘not at war’ with, but what would be a better option?

    I’ve travelled the areas around Jalalabad in Afghanistan, and now even the Afghans are afraid of traveling to neighboring villages because of the lawlessness and Taliban. This is a porus region where drones can be constantly heard taking off and landing. Yes, I know that drones make it easier for the Taliban to recruit, but looking from a military point of view what would work instead?

    The schools and clinics built by PRT are blown up or burnt down. So, how can the west gain trust other than pull out and let the country collapse?

    • Yeah, you “gain trust” by orbiting drones with Hellfires 24/7, declaring some valley or district the “front of the week” and sending in some troops to kick ass and blow stuff up, and what’s your point? That “we” are “holding up the country?” To keep the country (which is a lot of very independent units with little to no sense of being a “country,” as you use the term, at all? Which like a whole lot of other places on the planet is full of lawlessness, including many places that are that way because “the west” has established for commercial reasons and just because “it” can, the conditions and institutions or destruction thereof that produce the lawlessness, including “legitimate lawlessness” carried out under color of “law” laid down by illegitimate but convenient kleptocratic “central governments.”

      And I’m curious what “military point of view” you think “the west,” that is also collapsing, economically and politically and socially as you write, can validly and “successfully” take, with respect to projection of all that power “we” have, all that really cool life-of-its-own weaponry and self-generating-conflict-creation doctrines, into places where the only way to “win” is to nuke the place into glassy slag, given terrain and the nature of the humans and the social groups that inhabit them.

      Does the phrase “futile exercise” resonate with you at all? How about “wise alternatives?” Do you give any thought to what, beside “military” planning and execution that has become the default (and demonstrably ineffectual, see “Global War on Terror”, except in the warping of our culture and the bankrupting of our countries) “foreign policy,” might over time achieve some kind of reduction (because you are never going to get rid of corruption and violence, even in Keokuk, Iowa, a place that is also “porous” to drugs from Mexico and crack brewed at home and race-baiting politicians) of that oh-so-deplorable “lawlessness?

      There’s so much packed into the few words of your post. Maybe you could explain what “gaining trust” is in your context, and how working toward that seductive goal could in any way be accomplished by looking and acting “from a military point of view”? Not to worry, of course — that’s the well-invested default, and it’s pretty clear that there’s no interest in “gaining trust” of the natives — rather, only in instilling fear as in terror in those people, so they won’t dare even think about doing anything that might invite a Hellfire from the scrutineers in their little offices half way around the world…

      • Most Afghans that I’ve meet while in Afghanistan are hopeful but terrified of the future. They worry that once ISAF leaves everything will repeat, when the Russians left civil war broke out. They want a strong central government, and you are right in the tribal regions the tribe is the government. My father-in-law is a tribal elder near where the US helicopter killed all the Pakitstsni soldiers. (No, I’m not partial to Afghans, I had to flee the country with hours notice due to a security threat.)

        As for trust, Afghans have been in conflict so long that they don’t know how else to live. An entire generation has grown up during war. Wouldn’t that make you skeptical and greedy?

        Yes, there will ALWAYS be problems in the US, especially drugs. However, those that are involved in drugs usually (but not always) have a choice. We don’t get to choose where we are born and only can make the best of whatever life we have; ie born into poverty, riches, or a developing country.

        We cannot drop a nuclear weapon and wipe a place off the map, would you like that done to your state? It is not a means to end, but would only create more and more hate at our arrogance.

        The ISAF forces used to walk the streets in my husband’s village and talk with those that were willing, but now both are too afraid. So, no we didn’t lose the chance 10 years ago, but Afghans believe we haven’t made things much better. I ask them where their salaries or schools come from and the don’t realize it’s all US funded. I imagine a campaign showing what has changed would be a good reminder, instead of the dramatic news programs from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

        The afghans are very passionate, and you would be too if you were afraid for the future (staying alive, not making money or buying a bigger house or newer car). Maybe we should go back to the drawing board, even this late in the game and hit the restart button?

    • The West cannot gain trust. It’s too late for that. The opportunity to gain trust in Afghanistan was lost 10 years ago.

      Get out and stop interfering; someone will take over sooner or later, perhaps the Taliban, or perhaps Iran will invade and conquer the area, or perhaps Pakistan will. As foreign invaders who have been screwing everything up for decades, the US simply has zero chance to improve anything.

      • When Afghanistan was left alone previously the extremists plotted large enough terrorist attacks that the world remembered Afghanistan.

        • Remember that Afghanistan was not exactly “left alone,” even in the wake of the US CIA etc. pot-stirring that aided and hastened the departure of the Soviets. “Our” involvement there did continue, at various levels, and the US had a whole lot to do, locally and globally, with setting conditions for a bin Laden and his merry band of believers to do what they did.

          And “terrorists” we will always have with us. Ask Tim McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski how it works. A quality police force sure seems to be the best way to intercept terrorism, but that requires a culture less riddled with corruption and cronyism and the rest.

  2. “Yes, I know that drones make it easier for the Taliban to recruit, but looking from a military point of view what would work instead?

    The schools and clinics built by PRT are blown up or burnt down. So, how can the west gain trust other than pull out and let the country collapse?”

    I think you answered your own question although your conclusion (collapse) is debatable.

    • The United States “pulled out” in a big war after 1991.

      And then Afghanistan turned into a paradise, no civilians died there, and nothing bad happened to the United States.

      Your recommendation, allegedly based on humanitarian grounds, is to call for a reprisal of the decade from the Soviet withdrawal to 9/11. I think a Plan B might be in order.

  3. “Emmerson, who monitors counter-terrorism for the UN, previously called in August for the US to hand over video of each covert drone attack.”

    The above-cited quote illustrates (with a clarity that nothing else could!), precisely why the UN will, and should, remain impotent in such an investigation. To suggest that “the US hand over video of each covert drone attack” is a (no doubt unintended) contradiction in terms. Note the operative term “covert.” The meaning of “covert” must completely escape Mr. Emmerson’s mental architecture if he expects the US to “hand over” video of such operations.

    John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or Tina Fey (or all three) would have a field day with this.

    • Says DoD:

      covert operation
      (DOD) An operation that is so planned and executed as to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor. See also clandestine operation; overt operation.
      Source: JP 3-05

      link to dtic.mil

      Kind of silly, isn’t it, to claim that openly conducted, openly avowed droning is “covert?” But I guess it would be too much to demand that the Drone Warriors violate some kind of Astral International Law Of War Version of the 5th Amendment and turn over the evidence of what they have been doing.

      What’s that I hear from the people on the Right? “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be concerned about oversight of your conduct…”

      • You obviously do not understand that what is really “covert” about the drone program, Mr. McPhee, is the intelligence behind it. The targeting and operational methods leading to the kill. I understand, though, that to expect some to understand that concept is a bridge to far.

  4. Targeting people because they are attending funerals or rushing to provide aid would be a war crime.

    On the other hand, sometimes legitimate targets attend funerals or rush to the site of a air strike, and there is nothing in international law against striking these targets when they are doing so.

    The anti-U.S. commentary on this, including by Mr. Emmerson, assumes that the former is the case, even as he implicitly acknowledges that he does not have adequate information to make such a determination.

    • “The anti-U.S. commentary on this, including by Mr. Emmerson, assumes that the former is the case, even as he implicitly acknowledges that he does not have adequate information to make such a determination.”

      Absolutely correct, Joe from Lowell. Mr. Emmerson (as well as others of his ideological ilk) is propelled by an agenda and an underlying preconceived opinion regarding the United States’ counter-terrorism program. And the Narrative to which he ascribes will not allow for alternative possibilities. His quixotic attempt to get the U.S. to “hand over” the results of each “covert” drone attack is probably less quixotic than it looks; rather, it is his way of appearing to “take on” the U.S. and appeal to like-minded ideologues.

  5. Keep up the cover noise, telling us about “anti-US commentary” and ignoring the pretty clear evidence “suggesting” that Our Boys and Girls are killing random noncombatants and using that really fun “double tap” tactic of lighting up the folks who come to give aid. link to dispatch.com

    US doctrine and tactics do not seem to actually be doing a whole effective lot to accomplish any increase in our security or protection of our position in the world. Maybe you have counter-proofs and examples to offer? Sure seems to me that we do not have enough wealth and power to make everyone else on the plant kneel down and say “Uncle,” and hand over the keys to their kingdoms…

    • You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m going to need a bit more than your opinion that there is “pretty clear evidence” of anything before I believe it. Because, you see, you accept “a conclusion that confirms my predetermined talking points” as evidence.

      You wish me to offer counter-proofs of what, exactly? Nobody has offered any evidence or proof of anything. Emmerich himself is asking for evidence – he doesn’t even claim to know anything (which makes him a far better-informed, honest observer than you).

      But no doubt, you just skimmed right over that part.

      Sure seems to me that we do not have enough wealth and power to make everyone else on the plant kneel down and say “Uncle,” and hand over the keys to their kingdoms…

      What this is supposed to have to do with drone strikes in such lush, resource ladens “kingdoms” as Waziristan, Yemen, and Somalia eludes me.

  6. We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones.

    This phrasing makes me doubt Emmerich’s entire project. That the strikes are carried out by pilotless aircraft is the least relevant detail possible in determining their legality, significance, and morality.

    One could say that Barack Obama and George W. Bush “are in agreement on the use of aircraft carriers,” because Bush used them to support the invasion of Iraq, and Obama used them to support the UN protective mission in Libya – but those were two very different episodes, taking place under very different legal circumstances, involving very different types of missions. To conclude from this that the two share any meaningful views on any policies whatsoever would be foolish.

    The issue is not “drones.” UAVs are used for as wide a variety of missions as piloted aircraft. Providing close air support for ground forces in Afghanistan is not the same thing as targeting al Qaeda leadership in Yemen, which is not the same thing as targeting al Shabbab in Somalia, which is not the same thing as targeting Taliban and Haqqani commanders in Pakistan, which is not the same as targeting tanks and artillery guns in Libya. And yet, all of these different missions are getting lumped under the same heading, because the aircraft being used are remote-controlled.

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