UN investigation to probe ‘unlawful killings’ by drones in Palestine, Pakistan and Yemen

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Drone A US operated drone launches a missile (File photo via Al Arabiya)

An independent United Nations expert has announced that an investigation into US, UK and Israeli drone strikes will commence. The investigation into the drone strikes will be led by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.

The areas covered by the investigation include the occupied Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, the main countries that bear the brunt of drone strikes. The United States carries out drone attacks on Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the UK has also carried out drone strikes in Afghanistan and reportedly assisted the US with striking Pakistan. And Israel is the country that carries out drone strikes in the Palestinian territories.

In a press statement (pdf here) posted online by Foreign Policy magazine, Emmerson said he would be focusing on 25 “cases studies from Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] and to examine the evidence in detail with a view to determining whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing.” If there is a finding that some of the attacks were unlawful, Emmerson said, it could trigger the “international law obligations to investigate.”

Emmerson will be assisted by a number of experts, including Yemeni human rights activist Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani and New York University’s Sarah Knuckey, one of the authors of a groundbreaking report on the civilian impact of drones in Pakistan.

Here’s more from Emmerson:

The Inquiry that I am launching today is a direct response to the requests made to me by States at the Human Rights Council last June, as well as to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAVs. The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law and it is both right as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political reality, that the international community should now be focussing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development, particularly its deployment in counterterrorism and counter-insurgency initiatives, and attempt to reach a consensus on the legality of its use, and the standards and safeguards which should apply to it.

The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay, and its use in theatres of conflict is a reality with which the world must contend. It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law.

The results of the investigation will be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2013.

News of the inquiry was praised by civil liberties advocates. “We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the US back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement sent to a variety of media outlets. “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 US government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program.”

The United States is by far the current leader in the use of drone strikes, as The Guardian’s Ryan Devereaux noted. But it is Israel that pioneered the use of drones, dating back to 1970. Israeli drone strikes have pummeled the Gaza Strip and frequently hover in the sky over the coastal enclave even when there is no fighting. The Washington Post documented Israel’s use of drones in Gaza in a 2011 report:

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says 825 people have been killed by drones in Gaza since the capture of Shalit, who was released in October. Most of those killed, according to the organization, have been civilians mistakenly targeted or caught in the deadly shrapnel shower of a drone strike…

Across northern Gaza, the response to the arrival of drones overhead is swift and, for some, almost involuntary. Their near-constant presence shapes life beneath them in a thousand ways — from how Islamist militants communicate to the color of exercise clothes chosen for a morning jog to the quality of satellite-television reception.

When the buzz begins, an unemployed tailor in the hilltop village of Ezret Abed Rabbo walks to his window and opens it — one, then another, until the glass in all of them is safe from what he expects to be an imminent blast. The most recent rocked the area in late October when Israel responded with drones and F-16s to the attack on Ashkelon, killing nine Palestinian militants.

“For us, drones mean death,” said Hamdi Shaqqura, a deputy director of the human rights center. “When you hear drones, you hear death.”

And Human Rights Watch in 2009 documented how Israeli drone strikes during Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, resulted in the deaths of civilians. Here’s one Israeli drone strike on Gaza Human Rights Watch documented:

In one daytime attack on December 27, the first day of the Israeli offensive, an IDF drone-launched missile hit a group of students who were waiting for a bus in central Gaza City, across the street from the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), killing nine students, two of them women, and three other civilians. The IDF has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded central street with no known military activity in the area at the time.

The launch of the UN investigation also comes as public discourse in the US has seen an uptick in interest in drones, as the Inter Press Service‘s Jim Lobe documents here. The Obama administration has relied heavily on the use of drones to carry out military operations against suspected “militants” in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes have killed 2,152 people, including 290 civilians, in Pakistan during the Obama administration.

Civilians have also been killed by the U.S. in Yemen. In Jeremy Scahill’s and Rick Rowley’s new movie Dirty Wars, currently premiering at Sundance, the attack on al-Majalah in Yemen is documented. “The first bombing that happened, on December 17th, 2009, where President Obama directly authorized the strike, was on this village of al-Majalah in southern Yemen, and 46 people were killed, including two dozen women and children, in that strike,” Scahill explained in an interview on Democracy Now!

The Obama administration has recently moved to codify the use of targeted killings by drones by developing a so-called “playbook” that would determine the “legal principles” for when U.S. citizens could be targeted by drone and the “sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones,” as the Washington Post reported last weekend. But there’s a gaping hole in the “playbook”: the CIA’s current campaign of drone strikes will be exempted for at least a year. The CIA is responsible for conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, which is at the epicenter of the US drone campaign. That means that the controversial use of so-called “signature strikes,” or strikes that the CIA carries out in Pakistan based on “patterns of life” without knowing the identity of those they are targeting, will be exempt from the Obama “playbook.”

The news of the UN investigation also comes amidst an escalation in US drone strikes this year. In a five-day span this month, 24 Yemenis were killed by U.S. drones.

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