The United Nations announced on Thursday that it is launching an inquiry into whether controversial drone attacks, such as those used by the United States, are war crimes. The move is not unexpected. Ben Emmerson QC, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, told a Harvard audience in October than an investigation would likely take place. At the time, Emmerson criticized the premise on which the use of drones is based:
“The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law… It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.
“The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the U.S. The first-term Obama administration initially retreated from this approach, but over the past 18 months it has begun to rear its head once again, in briefings by administration officials seeking to provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia …”
While Emmerson has characterized the Obama administration as uncooperative in sharing information about the strikes, the President himself was concerned enough about the program that, in the days leading up to November’s election, he worked frantically to hammer out guidelines for the use of the Predator drone in case Mitt Romney won the presidency. But why then? Why hasn’t there already been a standard to which the Obama administration has been held?
Although Thursday’s announcement stated that no particular country is the target of the U.N. investigation, Emmerson has asked the United States for “before and after” videos of its strikes, as well as reports on who was killed, including civilians. He reported that Great Britain has already agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
While President Obama may have ambivalent feelings about the use of the program–if it should fall into other hands, at any rate–some Americans are also conflicted about the killings. Continuing protests, including one outside the White House on Inauguration Day, are aimed at both Obama and former president George W. Bush, labeling them war criminals. At the same time on Monday, Press TV reported that four people died during a U.S. strike in Yemen. But most Americans don’t seem to be paying attention–willing to tolerate or even ignore such strikes, regardless of the possibility of civilian deaths, if the program lulls them into the illusion of greater safety.
In December, former President Jimmy Carter lamented the continuing erosion of human rights within and without the U.S., saying about drone strikes:
“I personally think we do more harm than good by having our drones attack some potential terrorists who have not been tried or proven that they are guilty. But in the meantime, the [assassination] drone attacks also kill women and children, sometimes in weddings… so this is the kind of thing we should correct.”
Emmerson warns that the use of drones is escalating, and not just at the hands of the U.S. government. The implications of his words are pretty dire:
“The reality is that the increasing availability of this technology […] makes it very likely that more states will be using this technology in the coming months and years and includes raising the spectre that non state organizations – organizations labelled as terrorist groups – could use the technology in retaliation.”
Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union points out:
“Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.’s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield. To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program.”
If the U.S. government refuses to be held accountable for its kill program, and Americans are willing to accept civilian casualties as a result, how can we hold any other country accountable when the tables are turned and we, or our allies, are sustaining those casualties? Using drones in “targeted killings” of our so-called enemies–without trial or proof or guilt, as Jimmy Carter said–leaves us vulnerable to the same. If China or Russia or North Korea engaged in this kind of program, killing innocent civilians, including children, because of “national security” what would we say? Would we then rise up in outrage? Because then will be too late.