No 'War Crimes' To See Here, Please Move Along

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Common Dreams

No 'War Crimes' To See Here, Please Move Along

On ignoring the human rights and legal emergency that is the Obama drone killing program

Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi of Yakla holds a photo of his son Ali Abdullah Mohammed al-Tisi, who was killed in a US drone strike outside Rad`a, Yemen on December 12, 2013. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

While Western media focuses almost exclusively on events in Russia and Ukraine, it continues to ignore the growing calls for transparency and accountability for suspected war crimes and the most egregious of human rights violations from the Obama administration regarding its “targeted” killing program. That’s right; you might not know it, but the United States is being called to task for the very same violations of international law it so vehemently calls on others to obey.

The New York Times, for example, allotted just one paragraph to a United Nations Human Rights Committee report that condemned a wide array of U.S. counterterrorism policies, calling on the U.S. to “ensure that all cases of unlawful killing…are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned." The Western media has also ignored the intensification in the number of drone strikes in Yemen, including seven strikes in the first two weeks of March, resulting in “a sharp escalation in the number of reported civilian casualties."

"From the lack of transparency, it is clear the Obama administration fears that transparency will reveal violations of international human rights law and/or international humanitarian law (also known as war crimes)."

Meanwhile, in his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said the following on fighting terrorism, “We must enlist our values in the fight.  That's why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts…So in the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting…of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Despite President’s Obama’s pledge of greater transparency, the United States chose to boycott a United Nations Human Rights Council discussion of a Pakistani draft resolution, which was later adopted with 27 states in favor, six against, and 14 abstentions, that urges states to "ensure transparency" regarding drone strikes and to "conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use."

While the Obama administration continues to rely on the “trust us” defense against allegations that it has violated international human rights law and the laws of war, Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, have repeatedly called for the Obama administration to be transparent about who it kills in its drone strikes.

In October 2013, Heyns published a report that stated, “Legal and political accountability are dependent on public access to the relevant information. Only on the basis of such information can effective oversight and enforcement take place. The first step towards securing human rights in this context is transparency about the use of drones.” He added, “Accountability for violations of international human rights law (or international humanitarian law) is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law.”

Earlier this month, Emmerson published the last of three reports, within which he called upon the United States to “disclose the results of any fact-finding inquiries into the alleged incidents listed therein, or to explain why no such inquiries have been made.” Related, in his September 2013 report, Emmerson noted, “The Special Rapporteur does not accept that considerations of national security justify withholding statistical and basic methodological data of this kind.”

What gets lost in the debate over transparency is the direct link between transparency and accountability. Serious and legitimate questions have been raised regarding the legality of some of the methods employed in President Obama’s “targeted” killing program, as well as the number of innocent people killed in such operations. These methods include: “signature strikes”, which target individuals and groups based in behavioral characteristics rather than operational intelligence that indicates they are participating in hostilities; the use of “double taps”; and the attacking of funeral attendees.

From the lack of transparency, it is clear the Obama administration fears that transparency will reveal violations of international human rights law and/or international humanitarian law (also known as war crimes). Allegations of such violations were recently levied against the United States by two internationally recognized members of the human rights NGO community, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

According to Amnesty International’s report on drone strikes in Pakistan, “[T]heir deliberate killings by drones … very likely violate the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute extrajudicial executions.”

According to Human Rights Watch’s report on strikes in Yemen, “Two of these attacks were in clear violation of international humanitarian law – the laws of war – because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons. The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm.”

The near complete lack of transparency from the Obama administration concerning its targeted killing program has made accountability impossible, thus undermining the very international legal system the United States, according to its own “principled interpretation ,” claims to be in compliance with.

The international system, as established by United Nations Charter Article 2(1), is “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all states.” International law cannot possibly function as it was designed when the most powerful states are able to make unsubstantiated claims about the legality of their actions, and are free to act with impunity and without the slightest fear that one day they too will be held to account for them.

Jeffrey Bachman

Jeff Bachman is a professor of human rights at American University in Washington, with a focus in state responsibility for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_bachman

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