UN Official Report: American Drone Strikes Likely Violate Int’l Law, Killing Civilians

By on October 22, 2013

by Ezra Van Auken

This week United Nations officials will be sitting in and discussing the legality and use of drone strikes, something the Obama administration has used extensively in regions like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The debate follows an ongoing investigation by UN’s human rights special reporter, who believes US drone strikes could be violating international law. Ben Emmerson of the UN has led the investigation and is pushing the US intelligence community, particularly the CIA, to publish policy documents for more understanding.

Not waiting for the already non-responsive intelligence agency to reply, Emmerson and the UN posted their 23-page investigation on US drone use last week – before the international discussion on drone warring. In the report, officials outline Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Gaza as areas of witness. Traveling to Pakistan, Emmerson found that at the very least, 330 drone strikes have hit Pakistan since 2004. Pakistani officials say 2,200 people have been killed and in the mix are about 400 civilians.

Surely though, there are civilian injuries as opposed to deaths, and that total according to the UN investigation is up to 600 civilians. Another 200 individuals killed in drone attacks were not listed as civilians, but rather “non-combatants”. From the beginning of 2012 to the first half of 2013, drone strike civilian causalities declined, both in “absolute numbers” and overall fatalities. The US has been the only Western country to put a solid drone presence in Pakistan, heavily increasing drone fire from 2004 to 2013.

Moving onto Yemen, the special reporter wrote, “While the fact that civilians have been killed or injured does not necessarily point to a violation of international humanitarian law, it undoubtedly raises issues of accountability and transparency,” while finding an estimated 58 drone strike victims, all of whom were civilians. From 2011 into 2012 and beyond, the US increased its drone presence pretty dramatically. As the report notes, strikes “intensified” in 2012. Most strikes were on moving vehicles, hoping to scale back civilian deaths.

What cost the US a skyrocketed number of civilian deaths in 2009 was a sole drone strike in Al Majalah on a tented camp, which the Obama administration never acknowledged. Yemen’s witness of US drone policy began in 2011, and a total 268 to 393 fatalities have occurred since — 58 of which are reportedly civilian. “The most single important incident to date” was the attack on Rada’a in 2012, killing 12 civilians by use of a drone missile. The region is relatively “new” to drone operations compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Other nation states included in the report are Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Gaza, all of which were found victimized by drone use. Emmerson also pointed out that while his report certainly details America’s evasive drone wars, the CIA and other agencies have withheld key information, which would better explain the UN report. The special reporter also noted that the US is obligated to producing a “prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation,” when civilians are killed.

The report claims that remote-controlled UAV strikes, if following international humanitarian law, could bring the reduction of civilian causalities by taking a bigger account of the battlefield. However, Emmerson says later that there’s no consensus in the international community, which applies to the firing of drone strikes. And based off the estimated number of causalities, it’s past due time to give clear transparency and an understanding of a “who, what, when, why” the drone equipment is being used.

Emmerson writes that there are a “number of legal questions” that haven’t been answered by the guilty states, or most importantly, Obama’s administration regarding drone strikes. Since there hasn’t been a proper response by the guilty parties, Emmerson is bringing up the issue with states involved, asking for proper questions to be answered. “The Special Rapporteur urges the United States to further clarify its position on the legal and factual issues raised herein; to declassify, to the maximum extent possible,” the report writes.

Understanding that drone strikes have resulted in a steady increase of civilian loss, but further ignoring the mounting problems of that loss, NBC reported, “U.S. intelligence officials have consistently downplayed the number of civilian deaths.” It’s important to note that although the US carries the heavy weight of drone warfare, Israeli and British forces are also involved, just not to the degree of the Obama administration. With US officials in the corner, it will be interesting to see how they bend their upcoming meeting with international players.

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