U.S. needs a solid basis for drone strikes against ‘enemy combatants'

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Sept. 6 editorial "Target: Americans," concerning the CIA drone strike authorized against Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American-born cleric living in Yemen, said that the president should "consider making public the general criteria -- excluding ultra-sensitive methods and sources -- that it uses to designate an individual for the target list."

That's an excellent idea. The U.S. government has been sued for targeting a U.S. citizen without explaining how he meets the criteria of who may lawfully be killed as an enemy belligerent as part of the "war on terror." Yet the problem is not only the targeting of U.S. citizens. It is that the United States is engaged in a widely publicized program of targeting suspected combatants using unmanned aerial drones, often far from any proclaimed battlefield.

Whether this is legal depends not just on the citizenship of the target but on whether the individual is actually an enemy belligerent or a citizen directly participating in hostilities against the United States. International law does not permit the targeting of anyone who merely supports or promotes an enemy organization.

Using the CIA to secretly target suspected belligerents around the world, without a U.S. explanation of why this is legally justified, could backfire by helping al-Qaeda win many more new recruits than the United States can eliminate. Clarifying the criteria used to determine who qualifies as a lawfully targetable enemy belligerent would not undermine the U.S. war effort; on the contrary, it would make it more effective.

Daphne Eviatar, New York

The writer is a senior associate with the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.

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