U.N. Official Wants U.S. To Reevaluate Drone Use

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Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, is expected to call on the U.S. to end the use of CIA drones to attack al-Qaida. The strikes have been blamed for civilian deaths. Alston argues the U.S. military is much more accountable than the CIA for the deaths it causes.


A United Nations official wants the Obama administration to reconsider the way it uses drones. At issue is who should be in charge of the unmanned aircraft now targeting al-Qaida suspects in Pakistan. Should it be the CIA, as is now the case, or the U.S. military?

NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Obama administration has stepped up drone attacks in Pakistan, and that has Philip Alston worried. He's a New York University law professor and the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

He's planning to deliver a report to the United Nations' Human Rights Council in Geneva next week that says regular Armed Forces should be in charge of drones, not intelligence agencies like the CIA. He explained why in a recent interview with Australia's ABC radio.

Professor PHILIP ALSTON (Special Rapporteur, United Nations): The CIA, by definition, is not accountable. There is minimal accountability, obviously, to the president, but that doesn't help us at all in terms of international law standards. And so you've got an agency which has no particular training in these areas, no obvious commitment to respecting the laws of war, which is entrusted with the responsibility for deciding who to kill and when.

KELEMEN: The military, he argues, faces more restrictions. When U.S. air raids kill civilians in Afghanistan, for instance, the military investigates. But in Pakistan, the U.S. government rarely even talks about the drone attacks. Alston wants to see the U.S. at least fill out how it decides on targets. And he says the U.S. should be interested in a clear set of rules because this is technology likely to be used by more and more countries.

Prof. ALSTON: The rules that the United States, for example, is now claiming should apply would not look very attractive to the U.S. if invoked by China, for example, and China announced that it was going to go into Cambodia or some other neighboring country in order to take out people that it considered to be terrorists. That would be highly problematic. So we've got to look at rules for the future which will govern all countries.

KELEMEN: The State Department's legal adviser, Harold Koh, told the American Society of International Law in March that the U.S. believes the drone attacks are legal because this is an armed conflict with al-Qaida and the Taliban. Another official said privately that the U.S. cooperates with Pakistani partners to quote, take dangerous figures off the battlefield. The official also pointed out that Pakistanis don't want the U.S. military conducting operations on their soil.

But Notre Dame professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, who's been critical of the use of drones, says administration lawyers may have a tough time explaining this policy once the Alston report is formally released in Geneva.

Prof. MARY ELLEN O'CONNELL (Law, Notre Dame Law School): The Obama administration is going to have a very difficult time both saying, we're the good guys, we're the ones who are supporting the rule of law; and continuing to carry out killings, large numbers of killings by the CIA in Pakistan and other countries.

KELEMEN: A CIA spokesman told NPR that the agency's operations are conducted within a framework of law and with close U.S. government oversight. The accountability, he said, is real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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