Human rights advocates were underwhelmed by the spirited defense of lethal drone strikes offered by President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser on Monday.
Representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA said they welcomed the unprecedented public acknowledgement of the drone campaign by John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
But they said there are still serious questions about whether drone attacks on suspected millitants are legal under international law.
“Where there’s a war, for example in Afghanistan, [drone strikes] are a legitimate weapon of war,” said Tom Parker, a former British government security official who is now head of Amnesty International’s counter-terrorism program. “The problem comes when you make the unprecedented claim that you are in a world-wide conflict with a non-state actor.”
“We don’t believe that the justification [offered by Mr. Brennan] stands up under international humanitarian law,” he added.
Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director John Sifton said his group’s “argument is not with drone strikes” per se but how drone operators determine that a particular person is a legitimate tartet.
The criteria outlined by Mr. Brennan are not consistent with the definitions of who can be targeted under the laws of war, said Mr. Sifton, because of their “vague and over-broad language.”
“Direct participation in in hostilities is the test for lethal targeting under international humanitarian law,” he added.
Mr. Brennan said an exhaustive process ensures the legality and accuracy of the drone strikes but offered few details. He instead repeated assurances that the process is thorough and that great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties.