UN launches investigation into drone strikes

A Geneva-based team will examine reports of civilian deaths and the legality of the U.S.'s extrajudicial killings

Topics: Drones, UN, ACLU, Pakistan, Yemen, ben emmerson, Geneva, Kill Lists, Barack Obama, ,

UN launches investigation into drone strikes (Credit: Shutterstock)

The U.N. announced Thursday the launch of its investigation into targeted killings carried out by the U.S. and its allies. U.N. special rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who monitors counter-terrorism programs, will lead the Geneva-based investigation, which will look at civilian deaths in drone strikes and the legality of extradjudicial executions.

As Salon reported last year when Emmerson first announced the U.N. project, the human rights attorney told a Harvard conference that his team would be weighing up evidence as to whether the Obama administration was guilty of war crimes. He said:

[It is] alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. [U.N. consultant, professor of human rights] Christof Heyns … has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.

The investigation’s launch comes just as the Obama administration finalizes a manual on guidelines for targeted killings, further cementing kill lists into the U.S. national security apparatus.

According to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, not only will the U.N. team examine drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen,  but also “drone strikes by U.S. and U.K. forces in Afghanistan, and by Israel in the Occupied Territories. In total some 25 strikes are expected to be examined in detail.”

“The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay,” Emmerson told reporters. “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 requirement of international law”

The ACLU welcomed the investigation in a statement released Thursday. “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,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.



The civil liberties group also expressed hope that U.S. officials would cooperate with Emmerson and his team. “We hope the U.S. cooperates with the inquiry, and whether it does or not will show whether it holds itself to the same obligation to cooperate with U.N. human rights investigations that it urges on other countries,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Early signs indicate Emmerson’s team may have assistance from relevant states. He told journalists that Britain’s Ministry of Defence was already co-operating, and that Susan Rice, the US’s ambassador to the United Nations, had indicated that Washington ‘has not ruled out full co-operation.’”

The results of the investigation will be reported to the U.N. General Assembly in the fall.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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