The justification that U.S. officials cite in international law for killing terrorism suspects with drones is not accepted outside the United States, not even by America's allies, the U.N. official investigating the program said Tuesday.
The claim that the United States is in a global armed conflict with al Qaeda and is entitled under the laws of war to kill its members wherever it finds them is not widely accepted, said Ben Emmerson, a British jurist who is the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.
Speaking Tuesday at the centrist think tank New America Foundation in Washington, Mr. Emmerson said the "overwhelming consensus" in Europe is that the laws of war do not apply outside of a recognized conflict zone, like Afghanistan.
"We are not just talking about [nonprofit or advocacy groups] We are talking about senior legal advisers to the governments of some of the United States' closest allies," he said.
His remarks were his first public comments in Washington since he launched his investigation into the U.S. drone program in January. He said his task is to begin "a dialogue" with U.S. officials about the international legal framework that ought to govern their use of a technology over which they currently have a near-monopoly but will not for long.
He said U.S. officials he has spoken with understand that their justification for drone strikes will not last because drone technology is rapidly proliferating and most nations will not accept airstrikes by another country in their territory.
The rapid spread of drone technology raises questions far beyond the U.S. program, Mr. Emmerson said. "There's been a period when the United States had a monopoly on this kind of technology. That is over."
The legal framework U.S. officials chose had to be one "that we can live with if it is being used by Iran against Iranian dissidents hiding inside the territory of Turkey or Syria or Iraq," he said. "It has to be a framework we'd be prepared to see China use against dissident groups from Tibet."
Already, lethally equipped drones are being flown by the British and the Israeli armed forces, he said, adding that they will be available to nearly any nation that wants them within a few years.
"In a relatively short space of time in a matter of a year or two, other states will be deploying this technology. In five years or so, we will see large numbers of states and possibly even nonstate actors deploying [it]," he said. "Drones are here to stay. Their military logic is undeniable."
Mr. Emmerson said "the law often struggles to catch up with the facts," especially where new technologies are concerned.
He called for more transparency from the Obama administration about the U.S. drone program, saying that secrecy has "left the intellectual territory wide open" for critics of the program to exaggerate claims against it, such as the number of civilian casualties.
"The evidence is completely clear that the number of [civilian] casualties is considerably lower than when comparable munitions are delivered by [conventional] fixed-wing aircraft," he said.
On the other hand, there are profound problems in calculating civilian casualties from drone strikes in the lawless tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistan border, Mr. Emmerson said.
"I have some difficulty with the idea that there is a perfectly clear-cut distinction between civilians and combatants," he said, adding that some people in tribal areas usually are armed and often involved in low-level clashes with other groups.
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