U.N. Rights Council Report: Drone Attack Disclosure ‘Critical To Ensure Accountability’

The top U.N. official for executions submitted a report late Monday night to the U.N, Human Rights Council urging the U.S. to lift the veil of secrecy around its drone strike program, where unmanned planes fire precision-guided missiles at targets whose behavioral patterns fit profiles of suspected terrorists. The secretive strike program draws widespread criticism from rights groups and local populations, who decry imprecise targeting criteria and civilian casualties.

U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns criticized the drone strikes’ exclusive focus on the latter part of the “capture or kill” paradigm that’s long-guided military and law enforcement tactics. He also criticized the lack of transparency — the U.S. doesn’t even officially acknowledge most strikes — and the difficulties it poses for civilian victims of attacks. Heyns recommendations included:

The [U.S.] government should clarify the procedures in place to ensure that any targeted killing complies with international humanitarian law and human rights and indicate the measures or strategies applied to prevent casualties, as well as the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective and independent public investigation of alleged violations.

Despite more than 200 drone strikes — as graphically demonstrated by a chart of strikes and civilian casualty claims released by ProPublica — since President Obama took office in early 2009, the administration only officially acknowledged the program in an April 29 speech by top counter-terror adviser John Brennan.


The issue came to the fore last month when the New York Times published a long exposé on the administration’s targeting procedure. The article reported on controversial methods for counting civilian casualties and recounted a criticism that the administration relied too much on killing suspected terrorists because of disputes about how to deal with detaining them in the case of capture.

The secrecy and counting methods heighten these quandaries. ProPublica noted on Monday that the administration’s claims on civilian casualties, even when measured against its own different numbers at different times, “do not add up.” For instance, an administration official told the Times last month that total civilian deaths in Pakistan were “in the single digits” throughout all of Obama’s tenure. However, an official told McClatchy in April 2011 that “about 30” civilians had died in strikes in a 12-month period from August 2009 through August 2010. (See ProPublica’s interactive chart.)

The top U.N. rights official Navi Pillay, in the context of disputes with the Pakistani government over the drone strikes, hinted at the results of the new report in comments earlier this month: “Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law, in particular the principle of distinction and proportionality,” she said.