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UN Official: Aspects of US Drone Program Clearly 'War Crimes'

UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights announces investigation of civilians killed by US drone attacks

Common Dreams staff

Ben Emmerson QC, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, describes the obstacles he currently faces to his mandate from the United Nations, which is to assess human rights conditions through investigation and reporting. He spoke about counter-terrorism strategies, the accountability of US government officials in the cases of targeted killing, torture, rendition, and secret detention, as well as the stances taken on these issues by the candidates in the upcoming US Presidential Election. (Sebastian A Cruz)

The UN's special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights announced Thursday that the Human Rights Council at the UN will likely initiate an investigation into civilian deaths caused by the CIA and US military's use of drones and other targeted killing programs, and said that if certain allegations against the US prove true, he considers them serious enough to call "war crimes".

Ben Emmerson, at speech given at Harvard Law School on Thursday, said that he and his UN colleague—Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions—are compelled to investigate the controversial programs because the US government has so far refused to answer even some of the most basic questions about how it justifies such programs or prove that it has put in necessary safeguards to prevent the death of civilians.

“The Obama administration continues to formally adopt the position that it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the drone program. . . . In reality, the administration is holding its finger in the dam of public accountability,” he said according to a prepared copy of the speech.

“I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [U.N.] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks, and other forms of targeted killings conducted in counterterrorism operations, in which it has been alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted,” he added.

As special rapporteur, Emmerson's role at the UN is that of an independent researcher and adviser, but he does not necessarily represent the views or speak on behalf of the world body. “It’s not my job to speak for the UN,” he said. “I speak to the UN.”

His position was created in 2005, following concern at the UN that the role of counter-terrorism and reports of torture being used by the Bush administration exposed a blind spot in how human rights abuses were being institutionalized in the name of fighting terrorism.

“It is only by adherence to human rights regulations that counter-terrorism can survive,” Emerson said before he crowd of about 50, reports Harvard's student paper, The Crimson. He called into question not only the human rights obligations of governments to protect civilians, but also the important responsibility to uphold the rights of individuals "suspected of terrorism."

“Victims demand the accountability of public officials and the rule of law, not more human rights violations,” Emmerson said.


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Emmerson specifically addressed the failed logic of what is widely called 'the global war on terror,' arguing the construct of a 'global war paradigm' has been repeatedly used to justify acts that severe long-held notions of international law. He said:

The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law... It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.

The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US. The first-term Obama administration initially retreated from this approach, but over the past 18 months it has begun to rear its head once again, in briefings by administration officials seeking to provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia …

[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. Christof Heyns … has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.

In addition, Emerson, entered the political arena in some measure by noting that in a recent debate, presidential candidates Obama and Romney showed consensus on the existing drone program. "It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue has not even featured during their presidential elections campaigns, and got no mention at all in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones.’

He credited Obama for halting some of the worst abuses of the Bush years and noted that Mitt Romney, even recently, contends that waterboarding is "not torture."

"Anyone who is in doubt about whether waterboarding is torture should visit Tuol Sleng," Emerson said, invoking the murderous legacy of Pol Pot and the "infamous S-21 detention facility operated by the Khymer Rouge in Phnom Penh."

"Over a period of four years 14,000 people were systematically tortured and killed there. It is now a genocide museum. And right there, in the middle of the central torturing room, is the apparatus used by Pol Pot's security officials for waterboarding."

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