The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions wants a halt to CIA-directed drone strikes on suspected Islamic militants, warning that killings ordered far from the battlefield could lead to a “Playstation” mentality.
Philip Alston, a prominent Australian-born international law scholar, says missile strikes could be justified only when it was impossible to capture insurgents alive instead and only if they were carried out by regular US armed forces operating with proper oversight and respect for the rules of war. The Central Intelligence Agency’s use of unmanned Predator or Reaper drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan against al Qaeda and Taliban suspects had led to the death of “many hundreds,” including innocent civilians, he says in a 29-page report available on the UN.org site.
“Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries,” Alston said. The world does not know when and where the CIA is authorised to kill, its criteria for choosing targets, whether they are lawful killings, and how it follows up when civilians are illegally killed, adds Alston, who presented his report to the UN Human Rights Council headed by South African judge Navi Pillay in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday.
The CIA disputed the investigator’s conclusion, Reuters reports. “Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency’s operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight. The accountability’s real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise,” a CIA spokesman said. The United States is among the Geneva forum’s 47 members.
Under President Barack Obama, the CIA has stepped up its drone strikes in the tribal zone of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, targeting not only high-level al Qaeda and Taliban targets but largely unknown foot soldiers as well. Following a directive first issued by former President George W. Bush and continued by Obama, the CIA has widened the “target set” for drone strikes in Pakistan, Reuters reported last month.
Al Qaeda’s third-in-command, Sheikh Sa’id al-Masri, is believed to have been killed in May in a US missile strike in Pakistan, US officials said earlier this week. The United States is believed to control the fleet of drones from CIA headquarters in Virginia, coordinating with civilian pilots near hidden airfields in Afghanistan and Pakistan who fly the drones remotely, according to Alston, who teaches at the New York University School of Law.
“Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing,” he said, referring to the popular Sony video game console. Under international law, targeted killings are permitted in armed conflicts when used against fighters or civilians who engage directly in combat-like activities, Alston said. “But they are increasingly being used far from any battle zone.”
Israel stands accused of ordering the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander, in a Dubai hotel room in January. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied a role in the murder. Alston said Russia was also suspected of conducting targeted killings in Chechnya and beyond the breakaway region as part of its counter-terrorism operations.
The United States is among 40 countries with drone technology, according to Alston. Britain, China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey are named as having or seeking the capacity to fire missiles from their drones. But countries should use graduated force and where possible capture suspects rather than kill them, he said. “Thus, rather than using drone strikes, US forces should, wherever and whenever possible, conduct arrests or use less-than-lethal force to restrain,” he said.