Airstrikes carried out by U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly referred to as drones) have been criticized for several years by international human rights activists, including certain “special rapporteurs” operating out of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. One such special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson of the United Kingdom, has just announced that he will assemble a team of experts and lawyers to investigate U.S. drone strikes in various countries where al-Qaeda operates.
The U.N. investigation, which is scheduled to occur in three phases between now and October, will examine U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. (The U.N. team will also investigate strikes made by Israel against terrorists in the Palestinian Territories—after all, the U.N. seemingly cannot have a human rights investigation without some blame falling on Israel.)
The U.S. should ignore this investigation for the simple reason that its results are already written on the proverbial wall. The investigation will, in all likelihood, conclude that:
- The United States cannot legally target with deadly force al-Qaeda militants operating in countries like Somalia and Yemen where there is no “hot” armed conflict occurring,
- The al-Qaeda militants in those countries do not pose an imminent threat to the security of the United States and therefore cannot be targeted as an act of self-defense, and
- The risk of civilian deaths from drone strikes is so great that as a matter of international law such strikes violate the principle of proportionality.
Various international legal academics and human rights activists have regularly made these and other similar allegations ever since the Obama Administration stepped up the drone program in 2009. While drone strikes cannot be viewed alone as an effective counterterrorism strategy, the Administration has repeatedly defended the legality of the program.
Emmerson and his fellow U.N. special rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christof Heyns have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. provide more information on drone strikes—and the U.S. has repeatedly complied, issuing public statement after public statement defending every aspect of the drone program.
Public statements detailing the legality and propriety of the drone program have been made by top Administration officials, including State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, General Counsel for the Department of Defense Jeh Johnson, and CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston.
Increased transparency will, of course, be deemed by human rights activists as insufficient where their true goal is to stop the U.S. drone program in its entirety. Unless and until the U.S. can somehow promise that no civilian casualties will result from drone strikes, such strikes will be considered violations of international law.
Ignoring the U.N. probe will not make it go away, but the Obama Administration should not be so naive as to expect that its cooperation will substantively alter the investigation’s findings and conclusions.