Targeted Killings, Including U.S. Drone Strikes, Come Under U.N. Human Rights Council Scrutiny

By Patrick Goodenough | June 3, 2010 | 4:59 AM EDT

Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, holds a press conference in New York on January 7, 2010. (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

( – The targeted assassination of terror suspects by remote control, a program expanded significantly under the Obama administration, comes under the spotlight Thursday, when the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council considers a report warning of the “risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.”
The report by Philip Alston, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, deals with various types of “targeted killing” carried out by states, paying considerable attention to the use by the U.S. of unmanned drones to fire missiles at terror suspects along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Earlier this week it was reported that Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, purportedly the al-Qaeda terrorist network’s No. 3 figure, had been killed in a missile strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan last month.
The U.S. is a member of the Human Rights Council, having joined last year after the Bush administration steered clear of it. Some of its members hostile to the U.S. have frequently used the forum to attack American policies, particularly those associated with what used to be called the war on terrorism.
In his 29-page document Alston cites reports indicating that the U.S. has carried out more than 120 drone strikes since the 2002 killing by missile of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, a senior al-Qaeda member suspected in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s port of Aden.
One study last October by the New America Foundation found that drone strikes since President Obama took office had accounted for about 450 deaths, about one-quarter of them civilians. There have been many more incidents since then, and some senior al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban fugitives have been killed.
Alston does not state that all “targeted killings” are unlawful, but says there are specific criteria and circumstances under which they may be legal against a combatant or other individual who “directly participates in hostilities.”

Senior al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu al-Yazid was reportedly killed in a drone-fired missile strike in north-west Pakistan last month. (AP Photo/Site Intelligence Group)

In the context of armed conflict, these include the requirements under international humanitarian law (IHL) that the killing must be militarily necessary, and the use of force must be proportionate – with the anticipated military advantage weighed against the expected harm to civilians. Moreover, “everything feasible must be done to prevent mistakes and minimize harm to civilians.”
Outside the context of armed conflict, however, Alston says that human rights law prohibits targeted killing, because “unlike in armed conflict, it is never permissible for killing to be the sole objective of an operation.”
That does not limit the use of lethal force in circumstances where law enforcement officials are confronted by a criminal – including a terrorist or suicide bomber – threatening to harm individuals. “Lethal force under human rights law is legal if it is strictly and directly necessary to save life,” the report says.
Alston raises concerns about the fact the drone program is run by the Central Intelligence Agency, suggesting that a military-run operation would be preferable because the U.S. military has a relatively public – if “by no means perfect” – accountability process.
“Because this program remains shrouded in official secrecy, the international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed,” he said in a statement accompanying the report.
“Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries.”
Alston cites media reports indicating that the program is controlled from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with the pilotless craft taking off from hidden airfields in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“[B]ecause operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audiofeed,
there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing,” he says in the report.
“States must ensure that training programs for drone operators who have never been subjected to the risks and rigors of battle instill respect for IHL and adequate safeguards for compliance with it.”
Among his recommendations, Alston says governments carrying out targeted killings should set out publicly the rules of international law which they consider provide a basis for the action, and make public the number of civilians killed collaterally, as well as measures to prevent such casualties.
Neither the State Department nor the White House had a response to issues raised in Alston’s report.
Last March, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh delivered a speech in which, for the first time, an administration official publicly laid down a legal basis for targeted killings.
“In this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks,” Koh said.
“A state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force,” he said.
“Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.”
Koh said principles of distinction and proportionality were implemented rigorously throughout the planning and execution of the operations.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow