In January, a United Nations official began an investigation into the use of drones in targeted killing, the first formal international probe of U.S., British and Israeli counterterrorism programs that have killed hundreds of suspected terrorists — along with an unknown number of innocent civilians — in secret strikes. In the U.S., the development will surely put new pressure on agencies and the contractors involved in President Obama’s signature counterterrorism strategy.
Leading the inquiry is Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights and counterterrorism, an international lawyer. (His counterpart, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, wrote a commentary in C4ISR Journal’s January-February issue.) Emmerson said his investigation will examine 25 drone strikes in detail in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. One key focus, he said, will be to look allegations of significant civilian collateral damage. That’s important in human rights law because generally it’s a violation to launch attack where collateral damage to civilians is excessive or disproportionate.
Another focus, he said, will be to try to determine who the actual targets of the drone killings are, and to unravel the secret processes used in selecting them.
Emmerson emphasized that he’s not trying to butt heads with the U.S. government.
“This is not a hostile inquiry,” he said. “The aim is to get to the bottom of the current opacity that has clouded the debate.”
He argues that it is vital to understand the legal frameworks because the use of drones in targeted killings will only expand.
“The United States may have been the market leader in the deployment of this technology,” he said, “but there is every reason to believe that different countries will be using this technology.”
The reality is that Emmerson has little leverage to encourage any nation to cooperate with his probe. Israel has already indicated it won’t cooperate, but the U.N. official said he’s optimistic about U.S. cooperation.
“All the indications are that the second term Obama administration strongly feels that it has a case to make in the public forum and in front of the international community,” he said.
The U.S. Mission to the United Nations did not return a phone call and an email about the inquiry.
The U.S. has been reluctant to reveal anything in any open setting about its drone killings. The White House maintains that virtually everything associated with the effort is classified. The administration successfully argued in federal court that it didn’t need to release the contents of a legal memo that outlines how U.S. citizens could be targeted for killing.
With that history, Emmerson may have an uphill battle when he finally starts sending letters requesting facts. But he says he isn’t asking for information that would compromise security.
“I entirely recognize the legitimate right of all states to protect the security of intelligence information that could put national security interests at risk,” he said.
And if the U.S. refuses to cooperate?
“All I can do,” he said, “is to report to the general assembly that a particular state has chosen not to answer any questions.”
Emmerson says he believes contractors are part of the program, and he said he hopes to learn what their level of participation is.
“I have been provided with solid information from what I assess to be a reliable source confirming the use of independent contractors,” he said,
He said if their role is limited to a purely logistical one, it may be of no concern for the investigation. Sources in the drone business say that only members of the armed forces, or employees of the government, can actually pull the trigger in drone strikes. When missiles are fired from drones, sources say, the “pilot” actually launches it, but the sensor operator guides it to the target.
This current inquiry isn’t meant to lead to prosecutions. Emmerson said the plan is to review his case studies, and where he believes there were “disproportionate casualties,” he’ll push for a full-blown independent investigation.