UN rights expert voices concern over use of unmanned drones by United States

Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

28 October 2009 – The use of pilot-less drones by the United States to target militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be regarded as a breach of international law unless Washington can demonstrate that it follows the appropriate precautions and accountability mechanisms, an independent United Nations human rights expert warned.

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, yesterday presented his latest report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural) at UN Headquarters in New York, telling committee members that his concern about the issue has “grown dramatically” in recent months.

The US military has used unmanned drones and so-called “predators” to carry out the targeted executions of Taliban members and other militants operating in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan, he noted to journalists after presenting the report.

“While there may be circumstances in which the use of such techniques is consistent with applicable international law, this can only be determined in light of information about the legal basis on which particular individuals have been targeted, the measures taken to ensure conformity with the international humanitarian law principles of discrimination, proportionality, necessity and precaution, and the steps taken retrospectively to assess compliance in practice,” Mr. Alston told the committee.

Responding later to questions from journalists, the Special Rapporteur said the US position that the General Assembly and Human Rights Council – to which he reports – have no role in relation to killings that occur in the context of an armed conflict was a “simply untenable” response.

“That would remove the great majority of issues that come before these bodies right now,” he said, calling on US authorities to be more “upfront” about aspects of its programme.

“Otherwise you have the really problematic bottom line, which is that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is running a programme that is killing a significant number of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law.”

In his report Mr. Alston also discussed recent visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya and Colombia, and sounded the alarm about the apparently widespread practice worldwide of vigilante or “mob justice” killings.

“Covert or overt official involvement in, or encouragement of, vigilante killings is quite common,” he said, observing that all too often senior government officials do not publicly denounce instance of vigilante justice.

“Where vigilante killings persist for a sustained period, and the relevant police or municipal authorities have failed to take measures to reduce or eliminate them, national governments should introduce a system of penalties designed to ensure that the appropriate measures are taken… The prompt investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators is crucial.”

Mr. Alston serves in an independent and unpaid capacity and reports to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.


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