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Targeting the Humanitarian Side of Drones

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 27 2014 (IPS) - Failure to account and justify lethal drone activity by the United States represents a major violation of international law and international human rights law, a former U.N. rapporteur said Wednesday.

Since the beginning of drone attacks in 2001, the U.S. has conducted around 450 lethal drone strikes that have raised humanitarian and international legal issues.

“About 370 have taken place in Pakistan, with the next largest, 60 to 70, in Yemen,” said Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Journalism School, and a former Pulitzer prize winning reporter for the Washington Post and New Yorker.

Speaking during a panel discussion, he said: “The peak was in 2010 where there were 120 drone strikes in Pakistan. That equates to about one every three days.”

With reports by Pakistan military stating that 2,160 militants and 67 civilians were killed through drone attacks that were carried out through covert operations, the panel agreed that the U.S. government needs to address this human rights issue.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston said the U.S. failed to justify the basis for the use of armed drones, failed to acknowledge if a law has been broken or if civilian casualties have occurred.

“This failure regardless of anything else represents a major violation of international law and sets the U.S. up as an actor that sees itself as not accountable,” he said.

“The entire structure of both international humanitarian law and human rights law are premised on the notion that states accused of violating laws will respond with sufficient information to enable an evaluation and assessment to be undertaken.”

“There have been two fronted covert aerial wars in two different settings. The Obama administration finally acknowledged (in 2013) for the first time that the drone campaign exists,” Coll said.

Although the use of drones lies under U.S. law and policy framework of a “memorandum of notification”– a legal document authorised by the U.S. president to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry out covert action — it does not mean it aligns with international law, he said.

Alston added that after he challenged the CIA about the strikes, he received no response as to their involvement and rationale.

He said the response he did receive was that “we, the CIA have no obligation to tell you anything and we have not told you anything. What we have done is to leak various statements when it suits us, including the John Brennan (director of the CIA) statement that not a single civilian was killed.”

The controversial topic of drone strikes by the U.S. has raised concern from numerous organizations, including the United Nations.

In a statement last August, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the use of armed drones should be subject to the rules of international law and international humanitarian law.

He added, “Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes and civilian casualties.”

The United Nations has deployed unarmed drones, which it describe as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) , in at least one of its peacekeeping missions in Africa.

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