The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson says that the US drone strikes in Pakistan, that have caused over 400 civilian deaths, violate Pakistani sovereignty and are illegal.
And Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, says that “President Obama’s attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards” and may even constitute war crimes.
The response of some people is that the US government has no other option to counter terrorists. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch has an excellent essay that looks at what might constitute reasonable criteria for taking such drastic action.
What does international human rights and humanitarian law require? Not necessarily abolition of the drone program.
There are several conceivable rationales for the use of drones in such places, but the Obama administration has articulated none of them with clarity.
Should the administration really have the right to attack anyone it might characterize as a combatant against the United States? What if that person is walking the streets of London or Paris? The administration, in a statement by John Brennan, says as a matter of policy that it has an “unqualified preference” to capture rather than kill all targets. But away from a traditional battlefield, international human rights law requires the capture of enemies if possible. Failing to apply that law encourages other governments to circumvent it as well; they may summarily kill suspects simply by announcing a “global war” without there being an actual armed conflict. Imagine the mayhem that Russia could cause by killing alleged Chechen “combatants” throughout Europe, or China by killing Uighur “combatants” in the United States. Indeed, China may already be applying this elastic definition of war, as it reportedly considered using a drone to kill a drug trafficker in Burma.
Any program that kills on the basis of secret intelligence risks abuse. The administration could go a long way toward minimizing the possibility of illegal killings—and discouraging others from acting in kind—if it explicitly recognized clear limits in the law governing drone attacks and allowed as much independent consideration of its compliance as possible.
He argues that a lot depends on whether the threat is ‘imminent’, but that the Obama administration has interpreted that word so elastically that it has ceased to have any real meaning.
Roth’s piece is well worth reading in full.