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As Obama stonewalls on drone strikes, critics warn of war crimes

There they go again. 

Rather than simply allowing the US government to get on with the business of targeting “suspected terrorists” for death no matter where they are found, the ACLU is insisting that the American public has a right to know the legal grounds for putting Americans on the hit list. 

On June 20, the Obama Administration filed a response to an ACLU lawsuit and told it to mind its own business. “Even to describe the numbers and details of most of these documents,” the Department of Justice stated, “would reveal information that could damage the government’s counterterrorism efforts.”

Despite the fact that many details about the “targeted killing” program had been made public – including the drone strikes on Anwar al-Awlaki and other American citizens – the Justice Department asserted that information about its legal justification and whether the CIA had the authority to be involved was and should remain highly classified.  

The very next day the international community weighed in.   

Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who serves as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a forum that the ACLU organized in Geneva that the US drone strikes were undermining international law, encouraging other nations to flout human rights, and could constitute “war crimes.” 

Among the cases that would rise to the level of “war crimes” if true were allegations that “there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping the injured after an initial drone attack.”

Declaring that some states “find targeted killings immensely attractive” and “others may do so in the future,” Heyns deplored the damage being done to the international legal system. “Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it’s recognized as being an armed conflict.”

London-based barrister Ben Emmerson, who is also a UN rapporteur, told the Geneva gathering that it was time to end the “conspiracy of silence” over the attacks. He called for independent investigations of strikes that occurred outside war zones and proposed that the UN set up an investigatory body. 

His proposal echoed the call made by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay two weeks previously, when she urged a UN investigation into drone strikes in Pakistan, saying they raised “serious questions about compliance with international law.” 

The US response to the barrage of criticism from Geneva? 

The Administration insisted that there was “unequivocal US commitment to conducting such operations with extraordinary care and in accordance with all applicable law, including the law of war.” 

And not only that. It also claimed “continuing commitment to greater transparency and a sincere effort to address some of the important issues that have been raised.”

Since the Administration seems determined not to let the public know the legal grounds on which Americans are targeted for death, perhaps it can take a mini step towards transparency by responding to a letter from 26 Members of Congress. They asked the White House to reveal to Congress the justification for the “signature” drone strikes launched against people whose identity was not known.

Coordinated by outgoing Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), the letter stated:

We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States…Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight. We are further concerned about the legal grounds for such strikes under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound…. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have. They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.

And fuel what the Obama Administration does not like to call the “war against terrorism” for years to come. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.