In a move which will surely strike some as predictable and others overdue, the U.N. announced that it would begin an investigation into the legality of the US’s drone program. For years now, unmanned aerial vehicles have been the mainstay of the United States anti-terrorism efforts overseas, sparking controversy and leading to demands for more oversight and transparency. And as of this past Thursday, it will be the subject of a major international investigation.
Led by special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson, the investigation is expected to focus on the legal justification for America’s expansive drone program, which has largely remained secretive and unexamined. What’s more, Emmerson and his team are expected to examine exactly how much collateral damage and civilian deaths the use of drones has caused, which is a major point for those opposed to their use.
In a statement released from Emmerson’s office, he outlines the parameters of the issue and the investigation to be mounted as follows:
“The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law. It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law.”
Other groups were quick to chime in on the decision to launch an investigation, not the least of which were Americans themselves. For example, Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama and the current chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, has urged the administration to make more of its drone policies public. “There’s been far too little debate [about the tactics of drone use] said Blair. “The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been waging a years-long effort to compel the Obama administration to release its internal legal considerations, also welcomed the U.N. investigation, and urged the U.S. to participate in it. Hina Shamsi, the director of the Union’s National Security Project, released a statement encompassing the ACLU’s position:
“Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.’s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield. To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program.”
Naturally, the US is not the only nation under scrutiny in this investigation. And neither is the issue of civilian deaths the only focus. The use of drones has increased exponentially in recent years, thanks in no small part to extensive development of UAV technology in a number of countries. And with countries like China and Iran following suit, drone use is only expected to grow and expand. By Investigating the legality and implications of their use now, the potential exists to establish a framework before they become widespread.