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United Nations (Sort of) Condemns Ongoing U.S. Drone Assassinations

G. Pascal Zachary

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The United Nations Human Rights Council has issued a report highly critical of assassinations carried out by U.S. “drone” attacks. These “targeted killings” are a central feature of the Obama administration’s conflict with Al Qaeda. Increased criticism internationally of the Obama assassination doctrine now seems likely in the weeks and months ahead. The report is technical, emphasizing legal and procedural issues. (Its name says it all: "Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions.") While raising the specter of an escalating cycle of “competing drone attacks” around the world, the report offers some significant room for legal and moral justification of “targeted killing” by the U.S. of individuals outside the country’s borders. Since the author of the UN report, Philip Alston, seems to allow that the U.S. can deploy drones to assassinate individuals who can be deemed to have “direct participation in hostilities,” and thus are enemy combatants, one key definitional issue is how to determine who is directly engaged in hostilities and who isn’t (and thus can’t be targeted). These legalistic issues have taken on greater importance since earlier this year the Obama administration indicated that the president has the power to order the assassination even of American citizens living outside the country’s borders. The U.N., while criticizing U.S. reliance on the CIA to carry out drone assassinations (rather than the Armed Forces), nonetheless leaves much room for maneuver, declaring: “Targeted killing is only lawful when the target is a “combatant” or “fighter” or, in the case of a civilian, only for such time as the person directly participates in hostilities.” The utilitarian justification for drone assassinations is also viewed a permissible by the UN report, which finds: “A State killing is legal only if it is required to protect life … and there is no other means, such as capture or non-lethal incapacitation, of preventing that threat to life (making lethal force necessary).” While offering these qualifications, the UN report makes clear that the escalating uses of drone attacks is an alarming trend and that the attacks themselves are generally wrong, noting that “under human rights law, a targeted killing, in the sense of an intentional premeditated and deliberate killing by law enforcement officials, cannot be legal….” The report also concludes that drone assassinations against targets in one’s own country, “would be very unlikely to meet human rights limitations on the use of lethal force.” The UN report, dated May 28 and publicly released yesterday (June 2), calls for a special meeting to be held on targeted killings. The report also calls for the United States and other countries practicing such killings to provide greater “transparency and accountability,” especially in terms of calculating harm done to civilians in these attacks. Israel and Russia also come under criticism in the report.

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
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