The US policy of using drone strikes to carry out targeted killings presents a major challenge to the system of international law that has endured since the second world war, a UN investigator has said.
Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, fears that Barack Obama’s CIA-run programmes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere will encourage other states to flout long-established international human rights law.
In his strongest critique so far of drone strikes, Heyns suggested that some attacks may constitute war crimes.
Addressing the same meeting, organised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Pakistan’s UN ambassador in Geneva, Zamir Akram, called for international legal action to halt the “totally counterproductive” US drone strikes in his country.
Heyns, a South African law professor, said: “Are we to accept major changes to the international legal system which has been in existence since world war two and survived nuclear threats?”
Some states “find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future,” he said.
“Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it’s recognised as being an armed conflict.”
If “there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping [the injured] after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime.”
Akram said that US drone strikes had killed more than 1,000 civilians in Pakistan. “We find the use of drones to be totally counterproductive in terms of succeeding in the ‘war against terror’. It leads to greater levels of terror rather than reducing them.
“The only rules are through the international legal system. What are the possibilities of pursuing the international legal option in trying to deal with this problem?”
International frustration over Washington’s continued policy of using drone strikes surfaced during this week’s sessions of the UN’s human rights council in Geneva.
The US has defended its actions as self-defence against al-Qaida and has refused to allow judicial scrutiny of the programme.
On Thursday, the Obama administration issued a fresh rebuff through the US courts to an ACLU request for information about targeting policies. Such details, it insisted, remained classified.
Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s national security project, said: “Something that is being debated in UN hallways and committee rooms cannot apparently be talked about in US courtrooms, according to the government.”
The ACLU estimates that US drone strikes have killed as many as 4,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002. Of those, a significant proportion were civilians.