Independent UN rights expert urges more clarity on US counter-terrorism policies

Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

7 June 2013 – An independent United Nations human rights expert today wrapped up his visit to Washington, DC by calling for more clarity on aspects of President Barack Obama’s speech last month on United States counter-terrorism policy, particularly on the use of drones.

“I am confident that more information about the drone programme can safely be put into the public domain,” the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said in a news release, noting that some important questions remain unanswered.

“I will be engaging with the Administration over the coming months in an effort to further narrow the transparency gap. I very much hope that this engagement will bear fruit, and I will be reporting the results of the process in due course to the UN General Assembly.”

During his speech at the National Defense University last month, Mr. Obama said that, as part of a realignment of US counter-terrorism policy, he would curtail the use of drones, recommit to closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and seek new limits on his own war power.

Mr. Emmerson said that speech is “a critical document” mapping out the parameters of US counter-terrorism policy going forward, and is to be welcomed as “a significant step towards greater transparency and accountability.”

He urged bi-partisan support for the President’s stated objectives – an end to the military conflict with Al Qaida and its associates, the closure of Guantánamo, and the development of an active strategy to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism – saying that they are far too important for global peace and security, as well as for the safety of American citizens, to be allowed to become “a political football” in Congressional politics.

As for the use of targeted killing by drones, Mr. Emmerson said the speech sets out more clearly and more authoritatively than ever before the Administration’s legal justifications for targeted killing, and the constraints that it operates under.

It also clarifies, and proposes improvements to, the procedures for independent oversight; and it disposes of a number of myths, including the suggestion that the US is entitled to regard all military-aged males as combatants, and therefore as legitimate targets.

“But important questions remained unanswered,” the expert said. “On a close reading of the text of the speech and of the guidelines, some key questions remain obscure.”

During his visit to the US capital, the Special Rapporteur held meetings with, among others, senior lawyers at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the President’s National Security Staff.

In addition to his meetings, Mr. Emmerson took part in a high-level round-table discussion on the US drone and targeted killing strategy, organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, and also took part in the Global Security Forum, organized by Fordham Law School’s Centre on National Security and the New America Foundation.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. They work in an unpaid capacity.


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