President Obama's drone war in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen is coming under fire from the United Nations.
Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, reported Wednesday that the United States exercises the "most prolific use of targeted killings." He added that 40 countries have drone technology and some are seeking the technology to place a missile on the drones so the unmanned aerial vehicles can be used for targeted killings.
"I'm particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe," Mr. Alston said in a statement that accompanied his report.
Mr. Obama has expanded the use of the Predator and Reaper drones in the war against al Qaeda. Drone attacks in Pakistan expanded in August 2008 after an execute order was signed by President George W. Bush in July of that year.
Mr. Obama has not only expanded the technically secret program, but responsibility for the drone attacks in Pakistan has been handed over to the CIA, which does not operate under the same laws of armed conflict as the U.S. military.
"Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency's operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight," said CIA spokesman George Little. "The accountability's real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise."
Mr. Alston's report suggests there are serious questions about the drone program.
To start, his report says there appears to be no geographic boundaries to U.S. drone strikes, creating what some have called the "law of 9/11," a reference to the authorization of military force by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That authorization allows the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, said in a speech in March that the authorization allows the United States to use force throughout the world to target members of al Qaeda. He has justified the policy as a form of self-defense, based on the fact that al Qaeda and the United States are in armed conflict.
However, Mr. Alston said this is not clear. He pointed out that a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report in 2009 found that some targets in Afghanistan included drug traffickers, who should not be considered the same as armed combatants.
Part of the problem, Mr. Alston said, is that there is no overarching international law designed specifically for targeted killings. For example, international humanitarian law requires only that such targeted attacks do not target civilians disproportionately.
Mr. Koh said in his speech in March that U.S. strikes also make sure the attacks are limited to military objectives.
In his statement, Mr. Alston warned that the U.S. use of drones could encourage other countries to follow the American example.
"This strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions," he said.
Ben Wizner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed this point in an interview.
"There are many countries in the world that define their enemies as illegitimate terrorists who would be eager to do this," Mr. Wizner said. "The danger of treating the entire world as a battlefield is that countries might do the same."
A U.S. official familiar with the drone program said the approach, at least in Pakistan, a country whose tribal regions are thought to harbor al Qaeda's senior leadership, is the best option.
"The results speak for themselves," the official said. "Not even the terrorists can claim, let alone prove, that large numbers of innocent lives have been lost. Far from it. The precision is unsurpassed in the history of human conflict.
"To put it mildly, no one's come up with a better alternative, assuming they see value in trying to stop killers like al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. This is a policy of legitimate and lawful self-defense, driven by absolute necessity," the official said.
The U.S. has secret agreements with such countries as Pakistan and Yemen that allow drone attacks within their territorial borders in areas where the respective national authorities cannot effectively govern.
The CIA said it has killed at least 15 senior al Qaeda and Taliban figures since August 2008. The CIA thinks it killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the al Qaeda operative who served as a liaison between the group's various affiliates and Osama bin Laden.
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