Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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June 01
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JUNE 21, 2012 9:04PM

UN official calls American drone policy "war crime"

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An American drone in action: "Working hard to meet international standards"?

If you believe that the Obama Administration’s policy of seemingly arbitrary and certainly unaccountable drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries is nothing short of a war crime, you’re not alone: The United Nations agrees with you. Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last Tuesday, Christof Heyns, a London-based South African lawyer and UN special rapporteur on extradjudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, is calling on Washington to justify its policy of targeted killings using unmanned drones vs. the arrest and prosecution of al Qaeda and Taliban suspects. If the policy turns out to be as it appears, then, he says, it constitutes a "war crime" under international law.

Citing his 28-page UN report from March 30, Heyns stated that “disclosure is critical to ensure accountability, justice and reparation for victims or their families.”

 Christof Heyns

UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns

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.

Heyns quotes figures from Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission to show that the US – far from killing civilians “in the single digits,” as the Obama administration claims – killed a minimum of 957 persons in Pakistan in 2010. In the 300 or more drone strikes since 2004, perhaps 4,000 human beings have perished, 20% of them presumably civilians.

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).

In a press conference, Heyns stated that

My concern is that we are dealing here with a situation that creates precedence around the world. Not only for one particular country, for one particular administration, but this is technology that develops very fast and its almost as if there’s a genie that's about to come out of a bottle and unless the international community focuses on this, and not only this particular country but I think across the board, to establish and re-establish the legal framework within which this takes place. I think we're in for very dangerous precedents that can be used by countries on all sides.

Speaking at the Geneva conference, Pakistan’s ambassador echoed American critics of the so-called War on Terror by saying:

We find the use of drones to be totally counterproductive in terms of succeeding in the war against terror. It leads to greater levels of terror rather than reducing them. ... Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, have been murdered in these indiscriminate attacks.

At the conference, Heyn’s explicitly described America’s alleged policy of attacking first responders and funeral guests following an initial attack on suspected terrorists:

Reference should be made to a study earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism… If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime. (Emphasis added.)

Pakistani demo

Pakistanis demonstrate against US drone attacks in 2011 

While the Geneva conference obviously has no binding effect on US policy, let me suggest that it may herald a future era when American officials will actually be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity by foreign governments. Assuming, of course, that other foreign governments don't decide to join in the free-for-all and start launching drones of their own - whenever and wherever they choose.

So is Washington going to rethink its policy? The US Embassy in Switzerland thanked Heyns for his efforts, reassuring him that

Since our Nation’s founding, we have committed ourselves to pursuing the highest standards of justice and due process to protect the inalienable rights of all people as reflected in the U.S. Constitution, other U.S. law, and our international legal obligations.  We continue to work hard to ensure that our policies and our actions meet those standards and abide by all applicable domestic and international law.

So why don’t I find this comforting?




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Drone proliferation looks like a very real possibility. I'm glad the UN is finally taking a serious look at the problem.

You don't find it comforting because you have read Orwell, and you recognize that kind of language. Rated.
I have no argument against placing drone executions under criminality ut the daily breaking into Iraqi and Afghanistan homes and arbitrarily executing civilians by special forces is not excusable under the general classification of collateral damage and is equally criminal although not particularly technically sophisticated. It is a quotidian affair in the generality of a war on terror which is an idiotic concept.
the public might be surprised-- there are many offenses classified as "war crimes" that are far, far less serious than the drone warfare. it seems to be a much higher level of war criminality. there are garden variety criminals and there are psychopaths. those running the drone program are arguably basically in the latter category.
American Exceptionalism: the laws don't apply to us because we are different and superior. Despite the pious US rhetoric, the US clearly considers itself above the law. We will sit in fatal judgment of other nations. Their judgments of us constitute "terrorism."
Yes, there's American Exceptionalism written all over this policy. Maybe we should start calling it American Self-Deceptionalism, because as the guy says, what goes around comes around.

Yes, Orwell certainly comes to mind here.

Jan and vzn,
Too many war crimes to record, let alone prosecute. Sort of like "passing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500."
Some how they managed to provide an enormous amount of implicating evidence against the current activity of the US and “commend” them at the same time. I haven’t reviewed the whole thing yet but when they say, “Despite there being much to commend about the United States of America’s record on extrajudicial killings, three areas where significant improvement remains necessary were identified in the mission report (A/HRC/11/2/Add.5)…..” I can’t help but wonder what they could possibly “commend” about a “record on extrajudicial killings.”

The whole report is worth reviewing but I thought this was worth highlighting too, “Since June 2004, some 300 drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan129 and the number of resulting deaths has allegedly reached quadruple figures according to unconfirmed reports,130 of which about 20 per cent are believed to be civilians.131 According to the non-governmental Pakistan Human Rights Commission, United States drones strikes were responsible for at least 957 deaths in Pakistan in 2010.132 Information also indicates that the attacks increasingly fuel protests among the population.133 In the mission report, the Special Rapporteur recommended that the Government publish the number of civilians collaterally killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties. The DoD formally confirmed that such estimates of civilian casualties are not compiled separately from estimates related to other weapons systems.134 The Special Rapporteur reiterates the recommendation that the Government track civilian casualties in disaggregated data so as to identify the number of casualties resulting from the use of drone attacks.”

Also there is an enormous amount that is worth noting about the misuse of the death penalty here that needs much more attention yet the traditional Mass Media isn’t doing nearly as much as it could and should to cover this.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Some time ago I wrote:

The war of terror

The wedding of the young couple in the mountain vale between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The band started playing and the people dancing. The drone coming from the sky. The missile from the drone. The newly wed couple and all their friends killed. The village leader wrote on his diary: 'Americans again killed fifty people'.