Why the United Nations Is Challenging U.S. Drone Program

It's about accountability

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United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston has announced that he will formally ask the U.S. to halt its CIA programs of drone warfare. Alston, representing the UN, says that the drones should be operated by the military because the military drone program better complies with international warfare codes and because the military program is more transparent and accountable than the officially secret CIA program. What is the UN hoping to accomplish?

  • Will U.N. Accuse Obama of War Crimes?  They haven't, but conservative blogger William Jacobson thinks they "inevitably will." He sighs, "The use of human rights laws against democracies defending themselves against terrorists is a favorite tactic, and Israel is the usual target. The goal is to tie the hands of civil societies through false moral equivalencies, in which the terrorist trying to kill civilians is equated to the people trying to stop the terrorist."
  • This Is About 'Transparency'  Liberal blogger Turkana writes, "Specifically, Alston is only calling for accountability. But with accountability might come some level of transparency; and with transparency might come some degree of protection for innocents." Turkana doesn't think the UN will make any accusations of war crimes. "What is more important is that innocent civilians are being killed by a clumsy weapon, in a nation with which we are not even at war."
  • Presents Obama With Major Dilemma  The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman calls this "the first test for Obama's 'rules-based internationalism.'" Ackerman says the UN report puts "tension" between Obama's preference for drone warfare and his desire to promote the rule of international law and the strength of the UN. Ackerman adds that other countries, especially Russia and China, may soon develop similar missile-armed drones. If Obama defies the UN report, it will open the door for Russia and China to operate their own drones even if the UN--and the U.S.--ask them not to.
  • Have Military Take Over Drones  The Center for New American Security's Andrew Exum sighs, "Nothing gives me as much grief in DC as my opinions about drone strikes. But I have to say I agree with Mr. UN here." He suggests transferring the drone strikes from the CIA to the military. "Non-clandestine drone strikes *should* be conducted by armed forces (with accountability chains), not intel agencies."

In recent months, top lawyers for the State Department and the Defense Department have tried to square the idea that the C.I.A.’s drone program is lawful with the United States’ efforts to prosecute Guantánamo Bay detainees accused of killing American soldiers in combat, according to interviews and a review of military documents.

Under the laws of war, soldiers in traditional armies cannot be prosecuted and punished for killing enemy forces in battle. The United States has argued that because Qaeda fighters do not obey the requirements laid out in the Geneva Conventions — like wearing uniforms — they are not “privileged combatants” entitled to such battlefield immunity. But C.I.A. drone operators also wear no uniforms.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.