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UN expert: Drone attacks may be illegal

Governments must come clean on their methods for killing suspected terrorists and insurgents — especially when using unmanned drones, a U.N. human rights expert says.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Governments must come clean on their methods for killing suspected terrorists and insurgents — especially when using unmanned drones — because they may be committing war crimes, a U.N. human rights expert said Wednesday.

Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, called on countries to lay out the rules and safeguards they use when carrying out so-called targeted killings, publish figures on civilian casualties and prove they have attempted to capture or incapacitate suspects without killing them.

His 29-page report to the U.N. Human Rights Council will put unwanted scrutiny on intelligence operations of the United States, Israel and Russia, who Alston says are all credibly reported to have used drones to kill alleged terrorists and insurgents.

Alston, a New York University law professor, said the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by intelligence agencies such as the CIA to carry out targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere is particularly fraught because of the secrecy surrounding such operations.

"In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated," Alston said.

Breaching rules of war?
Although not illegal as such, CIA drone strikes are also more likely to breach the rules of war than similar operations carried out by armed forces, who are more familiar with international law and can resort to non-lethal means because they have troops on the ground, Alston said.

"Unlike a state's armed forces, its intelligence agents do not generally operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law, rendering violations more likely and causing a higher risk of prosecution both for war crimes and for violations of the laws of the state in which any killing occurs," he wrote.

In a March speech, U.S. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh said the administration's procedures for identifying lawful targets were "extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise."

The CIA, which refuses to discuss specific activities, claims all of its operations are lawful and subject to government oversight.

Defending drone attacks
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of intelligence matters, said lethal drones were an effective and legal means to target members of al-Qaida and the Taliban in far-flung areas where the United States or its allies have no military presence.

The U.S. official cited Pakistan, which officially condemns drone strikes on its territory but is widely believed to share intelligence with Washington for at least some of the attacks, especially those that target Pakistani Taliban militants blamed for numerous attacks in the country.

There was no evidence to prove large numbers of innocent lives have been lost due to drone strikes, the U.S. official said.

This view has been challenged by human rights groups and independent observers, who say remotely operated drones risk ingraining a video game mentality about war and can never be as accurate as eyewitness confirmation of targets from the ground.

"The point is that innocent people have been killed, this has been proved over and over again," said Louise Doswald-Beck, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

"If you don't have enough personnel on the ground, the chances of your having false information is actually quite huge," she told The Associated Press.

Recommending public investigations
Among the most sensitive recommendations in Alston's report is that governments should disclose "the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective, independent and public investigations of alleged violations of law."

Doing so could threaten counter-terror operations in countries such as Pakistan, said Michael Boyle, a lecturer in strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

"The drones program is effective in terms of getting terrorist operatives in places where there's limited reach or where, if you were to do it any other way, the political cost or the human cost would be too high," he said.

Alston's report also warns that CIA personnel could be extradited to those countries where the targeted killing takes place and wouldn't have the same immunity from prosecution as regular soldiers.

Alston claims more than 40 countries now have drone technology, with several seeking to equip them with lethal weapons.

Doswald-Beck said the next step could be the development of fully autonomous drones and battlefield robots programmed to identify and kill enemy fighters — but without human controllers to ensure targets are legitimate.

"If that's the case you've got a major problem," she said.