U.N. official urges U.S. to stop CIA drone attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

A senior U.N. official said Wednesday that the United States should halt the CIA's drone campaign against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan, charging that the secrecy surrounding the strikes violates the legal principle of international accountability.

But a report by Philip Alston, the United Nations' special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, stopped short of declaring the CIA program illegal.

He presented a 29-page report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday that focused on "targeted killings" by countries such as Russia and Israel as well as the United States.

"It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict," Alston said in a news release. "The greatest challenge to this principle today comes from the program operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. . . . 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."

Alston said some commentators have argued that CIA personnel involved in drone killings are committing war crimes because, unlike the military, they are "unlawful combatants." But, he said, "this argument is not supported" by international humanitarian law.

George Little, a CIA spokesman, said: "Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency's operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight." He added: "The accountability's real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise."

In a speech in March, Harold Hongju Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department, said: "The U.S. is in armed conflict with al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban and associated forces in response to the horrific acts of 9/11 and may use force consistent with its right to self-defense under international law."

Alston said that Koh's statement was "an important starting point" but that it did not address some central legal questions, including the scope of the conflict, who can be killed, and the existence of safeguards to ensure the "legality and accuracy of killings."

He added that the U.S. military has a relatively public accountability process. But he observed that states are permitted to attack only civilians who directly participate in hostilities, and he argued that the military's targeting of drug traffickers in Afghanistan is inconsistent with international humanitarian law.

Alston said states' failure "to disclose their criteria" for directly participating in hostilities "is deeply problematic, because it gives no transparency or clarity about what conduct could subject a civilian to killing." He said key military states should address the issue with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

And he argued that it is in the interest of the United States to have clear international rules on targeted killings as more states obtain drones that are able to fire missiles.

"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," Alston said. "But 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."

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