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UN report says CIA drone strikes in Pakistan 'illegal'

By Job Rabkin

Updated on 02 June 2010

A hard-hitting United Nations report, obtained by Channel 4 News, says a covert CIA programme to assasinate al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan using drone aircraft is "illegal" and should be halted, writes Job Rabkin in the US.

The report, written by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston, will be formally submitted to the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva tomorrow. It says the use of drones to target militants "violate straightforward legal rules".

"The refusal by States who conduct targeted killings to provide transparency about their policy violates the international framework that limits the unlawful use of legal force against individuals. A lack of disclosure gives States a virtual and impermissible licence to kill."

The report is a blow to the US government which has ramped up covert drone attacks in Pakistan. This year alone, more than 134 such attacks have taken place, a huge increase which has been sanctioned by President Barack Obama.

More on this story from Channel 4 News:
- Q&A: military drones explained
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: the problem with drones

This week, US officials revealed just such an attack had killed Sheik Sa'id al-Masri, alleged to be the operations chief for al-Qaida. Al-Masri was believed to be in charge of running day to day operations and was thought to be a crucial link between al-Qaida's disparate foot soldiers and its top leaders, Osama Bin Laden, and Ayman al Zawahiri.

The US argues the strikes are legal because they are taking place with the full backing of Pakistan's government. Pakistani leaders have condemned the drone strikes in public, but have allowed the Americans to carry on regardless. Furthermore the US says it is entitled to carry out such strikes under laws of self defence and the laws of war.

But the UN report says the US's definition is so wide-ranging that it allows the US to act with impunity virtually anywhere in the world.

"There are indeed circumstances in which targeted killings may be legal," Mr Alston says. "Targeted killings are permitted in armed conflict situations when used against combatants or fighters, or civilians who directly engage in combat-like activities. But they are increasingly being used far from any battle zone".

"This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defence goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter. If invoked by other States, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos."

The report also says the covert nature of the CIA programme in Pakistan is in breach of the rules governing accountability. The US government refuses to release any information about the CIA programme, but its widely believed the drone aircraft mostly used in Pakistan are operated remotely by CIA staff from the agency's Langley headquarters in Virginia.

"It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict," the UN says.

"Because the CIA programme remains shrouded in official secrecy, the international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorised to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed." 

"In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated."  

How long have these drones been around?
Unmanned drones have actually been used for about 30 years. They were first used for surveillance.

When did drones start to be used in attacks?
The first test of an armed drone was in 2001 by the CIA. They put hellfire missiles on what is known as a predator drone, which was previously used for spying. These are the missiles they still use today.

When was the armed drone first used on a 'real' target?
The first deployment was in Yemen in 2002, again by the CIA. They used it to blow up a sports utility vehicle in the middle of the desert. They claimed it killed an al-Qaida member, and five of his associates.

Who 'flies' them?
At the moment the drones in places like Afghanistan are controlled from Creech air force base in the Nevada desert. In the US you can just take a course to learn how to control these aircraft, while at the moment the British stipulate that you must have been a combat pilot to control them.

How are they controlled?
It's a bit like a console games controller. These people are sat in front of a big screen. It is actually called a "man in the loop" system. It has high resolution cameras and sensors to see things on the ground. It does have heat sensors to work out whether people are in a building or not.

Who makes the decision to fire the missiles, the drone or the human?
The pilot does, although on a lot of instances they won't have that much time – the drone will identify a target and ask them whether to shoot: yes or no? A lot of the time the pilot is vetoing targets rather than finding them.

Are other countries developing these armed drones?
Yes, at the moment there are 43 countries developing these programmes. Russia alone has 18 programmes, while the Chinese have a drone known as the Invisible Sword.

Why have they proved so popular with military forces?
Firstly you don’t have to worry about your pilot getting fatigued or shot down. If they want to go to the toilet during a shift they can and someone else can take over. After work than can go home to their families. There's also the cost: a drone can cost $40m, whereas a fighter plane can cost $350m.

The US government will not say how many innocent civilians have been killed in Pakistan, but estimates range from 30 to over 300. The attacks have mostly taken place in remote tribal regions, where there is little manpower on the ground and investigations into whether the correct targets were hit are hard to undertake.

The report says any drone strikes carried out by the US military in Pakistan or elsewhere should be carried out by uniformed military personel, to whom the laws of war are more rigorously applied.

Mr Alston argues the US military has a better public accountability process, as demonstrated earlier this week by its report on an incident in Afghanistan in which 23 civilians were killed after a drone pilot was given faulty intelligence. The incident was investigated and the officers responsible were reprimanded.

"Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries."

The report echoes calls by the American Civil Liberties Union, whiich has filed a lawsuit against the CIA demanding the Agency release more information about the rules governing its programme.

Channel 4 News sought interviews with the CIA, the State Department and the National Security Council but no officials were willing to be interviewed. But the CIA told the New York Times its programme was legal and the agency was fully accountable to Congress.

The United States has rapidly increased the number of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, from just a few hundred in the 1990s to reportedly over 7000 today.

The US Army recently announced it had flown more than a million hours of flight time with drones, and the US Airforce is not far behind on 700,000 hours.

This year, more drones were ordered by the Pentagon than regular aircraft, and thousands of pilots are being trained up each year.

A recently leaked document revealed US Central Command had given authorisation for drones to be deployed across the middle east, from Iran to Yemen and Somalia.

The aircraft range from the large Predator and Reapers, which are armed with hellfire missiles, to tiny planes that soldiers can carry in a back pack.

The military say the technology has saved hundreds of lives, by giving soldiers on the ground "eyes in the sky". The demand for the technology from the army and the airforce is "insatiable", with some military personnel describing it at army crack - "one hit and your hooked" said one officer to Channel 4 News.

But the advances are posing big challenges to the international rules governing warfare. The UN says the international community must work out how such technologies fit within an international regulatory framework.

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