UN official urges greater accountability for US drone strikes

[JURIST] A top UN official on Wednesday called on the US to cease CIA drone strikes [press release] in Pakistan until more accountability for the strikes exists. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston [official website] said that, despite their usefulness against terrorist organizations, the international community is kept uninformed of when and where drone attacks are authorized, allowing the CIA to conduct strikes virtually anywhere in the world without having to answer for its actions. In a report [text, PDF] presented to the UN Human Rights Council [official website] Saturday, Alston outlined the gaps he sees in accountability for drone strikes:

Even where the laws of war are clearly applicable, there has been a tendency to expand who may permissibly be targeted and under what conditions. Moreover, the States concerned have often failed to specify the legal justification for their policies, to disclose the safeguards in place to ensure that targeted killings are in fact legal and accurate, or to provide accountability mechanisms for violations. Most troublingly, they have refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences. The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum.
The CIA rebuffed the accusations [WP report] made by Alston, stating that the agency works under a strict legal framework and substantial government oversight. The agency claims that its "accountability [is] real" and the secrecy of its missions should not lead the UN to assume its is not acting responsibly. According to the UN, the US is the most prolific user of targeted killings today.

Last year, Alston noted that the use of unmanned drones by the US to carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be illegal [JURIST report] under international law. Alston said, "[t]he onus is really on the government of the United States to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions, are not in fact being carried out through the use of these weapons." Alston criticized the US policy in a report to the UN General Assembly's human rights committee that was presented as part of a larger demand that no state be free from accountability. In March, US State Department [official website] Legal Adviser Harold Koh [academic profile] defended the strikes [JURIST report], arguing that they do not violate current international laws. The statements followed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] to obtain more information about the drone attacks [JURIST report]. In April, a US subcommittee heard testimony on the legality of unmanned drone strikes [JURIST report]. In his opening remarks, subcommittee chair John Tierney said the drone strikes raise very complex legal issues and the US government needs to determine when and where an attack may legally occur, and at what point collateral damage becomes an issue.

 

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