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.”
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.)
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?