The United Nations announced it will investigate civilian deaths caused by US unmanned aerial drone strikes in the War on Terror, with one top UN official calling some drone strikes in Pakistan possible war crimes.
The UN announcement comes a day after a US drone attack killed at least one Pakistani civilian in North Waziristan.
The Guardianreports that the UN will set up a dedicated investigations unit in Geneva, Switzerland early in 2013 to probe the legality of drone strikes that kill civilians in so-called "targeted" attacks against suspected Islamic militants.
UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC, who along with UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Christof Heyns will be leading the probe, announced the forthcoming investigation in an address at Harvard Law School. Emmerson slammed American torture, specifically waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition-- the practice of apprehending suspected terrorists and sending them to other countries, many of which employ torture, for interrogation-- during his speech.
Emmerson said the UN will also investigate "other forms of targeted killing conducted in counter-terrorism operations, in which it is alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted." These presumably include President Barack Obama's once-secret "kill list" of suspected terrorists, a list which includes American citizens targeted for extrajudicial assassination without the constitutionally guaranteed due process of law. It is unclear whether or not the investigation will probe the Obama administration's redefinition of the term 'militant' to include all military-aged males in a strike zone.
The US assertion that it can use military force against al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups anywhere in the world because the War on Terror is inherently an international conflict is invalid, Emmerson said.
"The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations," he said in his Harvard speech.
"The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US," Emmerson added. "The first-term Obama administration initially retreated from this approach, but over the past 18 months it has begun to rear its head once again, in briefings by administration officials seeking to provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."
Emmerson then mentioned the possibly criminal damage inflicted by so-called "double-tap" strikes, in which US drones deliberately target rescue and emergency workers responding to earlier strikes as well as the funerals of suspected terrorists killed by US and allied forces.
"[It is] alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. Christof Heyns... has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view," Emmerson told his Harvard audience.
Emmerson expressed his disappointment in both President Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, for ignoring the issue of civilian deaths caused by US drones.
"It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue has not even featured during their presidential election campaigns, and got no mention at all in Monday night's foreign policy debate."
He then praised President Obama for acknowledging that waterboarding is torture and contrary to American values before slamming Romney for promising to resume Bush-era torture of terrorism suspects.
"Governor Romney has said that he does not believe that waterboarding is torture," Emmerson said. "He has said that he would allow enhanced interrogation techniques that go beyond those now permitted by the Army field manual, and his security advisers have recommended that he rescind existing restrictions."
Emmerson then compared Romney's stance to the genocidal (and US-backed) former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who employed waterboarding among his arsenal of torture techniques as he presided over the killing of more than 1 million of his own people in the 1970s.
"Anyone who is in doubt about whether waterboarding is torture should visit Tuol Sleng, the infamous S-21 detention facility operated by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh," he said. "Over a period of four years, 14,000 people were systematically tortured and killed there. It is now a genocide museum. And right there, in the middle of the central torturing room, is the apparatus used by Pol Pot's security officials for waterboarding."
Emmerson's announcement of the upcoming UN investigation into US drones strikes comes just a day after an American drone attack on a mud brick compound in the Pakistani village of Tappi Khun Kel, near the Afghan border in tribal North Waziristan, killed at least one and possibly as many as three civilians.
Last week, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that up to 80 percent of those killed in US drone strikes were innocent civilians. Malik urged the US to give Pakistan drones, arguing that his government could use them to fight terrorism more effectively than the United States.
According to the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, there have been at least 350 US drone strikes targeting Pakistan since 2004. Nearly 300 of these have occurred since Obama took office. As many as 885 innocent civilians-- including 176 children-- have been killed in these strikes.
"Living Under Drones," a recent study by researchers from Stanford University and New York University, concluded that only two percent of those killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan have been terrorist leaders and that drones are terrorizing Pakistani civilians and breeding anti-Americanism.
As Digital Journal reported in June, 74% of Pakistani respondents to a Pew Research Center poll said they view the United States as an "enemy." Tellingly, more Pakistanis had a favorable view of arch-enemy India than of the US.