Last week's headlines alerted readers to the supposed revelation of the United Nations inquiry into U.S. drone strikes policies and practices: "UN to Investigate Drone Attacks;" "UN Expert Launches Investigation of Drones, Targeted Killings;" and "United Nations: That's It, We're Investigating Drone Killings." The stories covered an announcement by British human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, who serves as the "U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism" (say that three times fast).
To put this inquiry into context, most international institutions are mandated to investigate accusations of their member states' human rights abuses, most prominently the Organization of American States, European Union, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United Nations goes a step further -- as it includes nearly all states in the world -- with ten separate entities that monitor compliance with international human rights treaties. Emmerson is part of the U.N. Human Rights Council's special procedures that "examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations," either thematically or in specific countries. There are 36 thematic and 12 country mandates covering everything from transnational corporations and freedom of religion to Belarus and Iran.
Emmerson will "look at the evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of States to conduct thorough independent and impartial investigations into such allegations." Emmerson and an impressive "inquiry team" will examine 25 drone strikes in "Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Palestine," where attacks were carried out predominantly by the United States, but also by the United Kingdom (in Afghanistan) and Israel (in Palestine). The findings and recommendations of the investigation are scheduled to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly in October.
The announcement was predictably welcomed by the American Civil Liberties Union, condemned by conservative bloggers as "another classic case of the UN trying to emasculate the United States' power," and acknowledged by an anonymous U.S. official repeating the mantra, "These strikes are conducted in full compliance with the law." Much like other media "revelations" about U.S. targeted killings -- see, for example, kill lists and signature strikes -- the United Nations has actually been investigating U.S. non-battlefield drone strikes since they first began in November 2002. Most have overlooked both the findings and impact of the U.N. queries as they have been minimal, largely due to the limited cooperation of the Bush and Obama administrations -- though the latter has been more willing to engage with U.N. investigators.
However, three previous responses to questions raised by the United Nations about targeted killings underscore not only how the U.S. position has shifted marginally over time, but also why the latest investigation is unlikely to compel increased transparency from the Obama administration.
First, on November 15, 2002, just twelve days after the first U.S. non-battlefield targeted killing -- against Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five suspected al Qaeda affiliates -- in Yemen, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, wrote to the United States and Yemen "requesting their comments" on the widely-reported missile strike. She presciently warned:
The Special Rapporteur is extremely concerned that should the information received be accurate, an alarming precedent might have been set for extrajudicial execution by consent of Government. The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against the excesses of non-State actors or other authorities, but these actions must be taken in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. In the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the attack in Yemen constitutes a clear case of extrajudicial killing.