The UN has launched an investigation led by special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson into the US use of drones for targeted killings. The investigation will focus on the "applicable legal framework" for drone operations.
The announcement comes after years of concern that the US drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has pushed the US to the brink of international lawlessness.
Wired.com notes that the investigation will also cover similar activities in the Palestinian territories, suggesting that reported Israeli attacks on Hamas may also be investigated.
According to ABC News, Pakistan was one of three countries that requested the investigation. The two other countries were not named but were identified as permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Pakistani authorities officially oppose the US operation of drones in their territory. It is, however, alleged that the authorities tacitly approved some strikes in the past.
The Emmerson investigation will focus on claims of civilian casualties during US drone strikes on suspected terrorists. Wired.com notes that the investigation will carry out "a critical examination of the factual evidence concerning civilian casualties."
The website comments: "That holds out the chance of creating, for the first time, an internationally established standard for the number of noncombatants who have died in drone strikes and commando raids, the subject of fierce dispute and little official acknowledgement."
Human Rights observers have long protested the use of drones by the US government to target suspected terrorists because they often result in higher civilian casualties than openly acknowledged. Observers are also concerned about the legality of the US government engaging in targeted assassination of individuals "suspected" of terrorism under circumstances in which the criteria for determining a legitimate target is lacking in transparency.
The efficacy of this method of fighting terrorism has also been questioned.
The Huffington Post reports there are growing calls for the US to declare its own internal legal framework for use of drones. At a recent conference call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence under President Obama, urged the administration to publish its drone policies. He said there's been too little debate about the drone policy of the US government.
According to The Huffington Post, Blair said: "The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been involved in a long campaign to force the Obama administration to release the internal legal framework for its drone operations. ABC News reports the ACLU filed lawsuits against the United States after drone attacks in which three US citizens were killed in Yemen in 2011, prominent among whom was the US born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said: “Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.’s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield."
Wired.com notes that Afghanistan is the only internationally recognized conflict zone in which the United States drone program operates. The U.S. has maintained that its drone operations outside the theater of war in Afghanistan are legal on the ground of a 2001 act of the US Congress that is not recognized internationally.
Shamsi stated: "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program."
The are also concerns about the fact that the United States is not the only country with actual or potential capability to deploy drones. There are concerns that the US escalation of drone war may spark an "drone arms race." The Huffington Post notes that use of drones is projected to expand around world with China and Iran already known to have the capability to deploy drones.
Emmerson said in a statement released by his office in London: "The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law. It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law."
He stressed that countries using drones have "an international law obligation to establish effective independent and impartial investigations into any drone attack in which it is plausibly alleged that civilian casualties were sustained."
Officially, the US continues to reject claims of widespread civilians casualties in drone strikes operated by the CIA. The Huffington Post observes the US government's drone program has remained secretive. According to ABC News, John Brennan, US anti-terrorism official who has been nominated as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was the first to openly acknowledge US drone program. He defended the legality of the program and said it was designed to prevent further terror attacks on the US.
The ACLU, in the light of its campaign, has welcomed the UN investigation and asked the US to participate. Shamsi said: "We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the U.S. back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force."
Wired.com notes, however, that there are no indications of the extent to which the US government will cooperate with Emmerson in the investigation.
On Thursday, the American Security Project released a report assessing the effectiveness of the drone program. According to The Huffington Post, the report suggested that focus on the tactical success of the program did not take relevant strategic issues into consideration.
There has been a widening and intensification of the drone program under Obama. According to ABC News, the Long War Journal reports there were 35 strikes in Pakistan in 2008, during President George W. Bush's last year in office. That number increased to 117 in 2010, decreased to 64 in 2011 and 46 in 2012.