An independent UN human rights researcher on Thursday announced plans to launch an investigation into the use of drone attacks and other targeted assassinations by the United States and other governments that result in civilian deaths or injuries.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said in a Harvard University law school speech that he and South African Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, will establish an investigative unit early next year in Geneva to probe drone attacks.
Emmerson said that his decision to investigate drone attacks and other targeted killings reflects frustration with the Obama administration's unwillingness to provide public information on such covert strikes. "The Obama administration continues to formally adopt the position that it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the drone program. . . . In reality, the administration is holding its finger in the dam of public accountability," he said according to a prepared copy of the speech.
"I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [U.N.] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks, and other forms of targeted killings conducted in counterterrorism operations, in which it has been alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted," he added.
He also waded into the White House election, noting that both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, appear to be in agreement on the covert use of drones. He expressed surprise that the issue of accountability for torture or other abuses of detainees has not featured in the presidential campaign and "got no mention at all" in Monday night's foreign policy debate.
But he noted that the two candidates diverge on the legality of the use of harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, which Obama says constitutes torture, but Romney says does not.
"If Governor Romney and his advisers believe that waterboarding is not torture, then they are quite simply wrong," Emmerson said in the prepared statement. "The rest of the world is quite clear on this, and some countries are, as we speak, going after those responsible."
The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on his remarks, saying the U.S. position has been outlined by White House adviser on counterterrorism John Brennan and other senior U.S. officials. In May, Brennan defended the U.S. program as "ethical and just," saying that the targeted nature of the strikes was more humane than traditional military strikes, lessening the prospects that civilians are killed.
Because Emmerson is an independent U.N. rights expert, his views do not represent the views of the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or those of its high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. But his affiliation with the United Nations is likely to carry greater political weight than those of most outside observers.
Emmerson presented a broad critique of the U.S.-led war on terrorism under the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, denouncing the controversial practices of rendition of waterboarding and "a tidal wave of panic legislation across the globe which has caused incalculable and lasting damage to the architecture of international human rights law."
He said that although Obama had initially retreated from Bush's "global war paradigm" — which viewed the struggle against terrorism as a permanent war — he said a similar mindset has "reared its head" in the past 18 months. He cited figures compiled by the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which alleged that at least 474 civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone and that at least 50 civilians have died in follow-up strikes, in which civilians who came to the aid of victims of previous strikes were killed.
He said that the primary responsibility for monitoring targeted killings rests with the states that order such operations and that they are obligated to establish an "independent investigative" body to assess their legality.
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Julie Tate contributed to this report.