In a letter to President Barack Obama, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling for a transfer of aerial drone strikes in foreign countries from the CIA to armed forces command, and says the White House should clarify legal rationale for targeted killings.
A letter by HRW to Obama is calling for clarification between lawful and unlawful targeted killings, considerations of international human rights law, definition of geographic limits on targeted killings, and the country’s rationale on targeted killings that would not apply to other countries, such as China or Russia, that declare terrorist threats.
“CIA drone strikes have become an almost daily occurrence around the world, but little is known about who is killed and under what circumstances,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at HRW, in a news release on Monday. “So long as the US resists public accountability for CIA drone strikes, the agency should not be conducting targeted killings.”
Most of the drone attacks, using missiles and laser-guided bombs, are believed to have taken place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
In the letter to Obama, HRW states
The US government should clarify fully and publicly its legal rationale for conducting targeted killings and the legal limits on such strikes. Your administration has yet to explain clearly where it draws the line between lawful and unlawful targeted killings.
HRW also calls on the government to explain its belief that its attacks conform to international law and to provide public information, including video footage, on how certain attacks comply to that standard.
Of particular concern is the expanded role of the CIA in the government’s targeted killing program. Although international law does not prohibit intelligence agencies from combat operation activities during armed conflicts, parties involved in those conflicts have obligations to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and offer redress for victims, the letter continues.
“Unsupported claims by administration officials that all US agencies involved in targeted killings are complying with international law are wholly inadequate,” Ross added in the news release. “By failing to adopt policies and practices that demonstrate compliance with international law, the US raises doubts among its allies about the lawfulness of its actions and creates a dangerous model for abusive governments.”
Calling the U.S. drone strikes “deliberate, lethal attacks aimed at specific individuals under the color of law,” HRW added the targeted killings range from several hundred to more than 2,000, and include alleged al Qaeda members, other armed group members, and civilians.
The letter went on to state that since the U.S. government has not yet shown a willingness to hold the CIA to international legal requirements, drones used for attacks should fall exclusively within the command task of the U.S. armed forces.
Countries which either have or are currently seeking drones with attack ability include China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the U.K.
In December 2010, HRW sent a letter to the president expressing concerns over the U.S. targeted killing program. The letter offered recommendations to minimize civilian harm and ensure U.S. practices and policies conformed to the country’s international legal commitments.
However, during the last year the country has rapidly expanded its Unmanned Combat Aircraft Systems (drones) for targeted killings in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In a Q&A on the U.S. role in targeted killings and international law, HRW said “there is no concrete, verifiable number of deaths from US targeted killings.” It added the New America Foundation conducted a study of reported U.S. drone strikes from 2004 to 2011 in northern Pakistan and, basing its numbers on local and international media accounts, concluded the strikes killed between 1,680 and 2,634 alleged militants and civilians. These deaths do not include drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, or Afghanistan.
The letter continued by quoting Obama when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize:
Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules ... the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.
In closing, HRW requests the president provide legal framework to uphold those words.