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UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston: Record AfPak Drone Attacks Under Obama May Violate International Law

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Investigative reporter Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine revealed last week that the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan has risen dramatically under President Obama. During his first nine-and-a-half months in office, Obama authorized at least forty-one CIA missile strikes in Pakistan — a rate of approximately one bombing a week. We speak to one of the most high-profile critics of the US drone program: Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Alston says the US government’s use of Predator drones may violate international law. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Pakistan, at least eighty people have been killed, scores hurt, by a large car bomb in a crowded market in Peshawar. Similar attacks have killed more than 200 people in recent weeks, as the Pakistani army carries out an operation against Taliban militants in South Waziristan.

The blast came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Clinton told a news conference the US was standing “shoulder to shoulder” with Pakistan in its military offensive. And one of the most high-profile ways the US is doing that is the increased use of unmanned Predator drones.

Investigative reporter Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine revealed last week the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan has risen dramatically under President Obama. During his first nine-and-a-half months in office, Obama authorized at least forty-one CIA missile strikes in Pakistan, a rate of approximately one bombing a week. That’s as many drone attacks as President Bush sanctioned in his final three years in office. The attacks have killed between 326 and 538 people, that’s according to Jane Mayer. She writes, quote, “there is no longer any doubt that targeted killing has become official US policy.”

One of the most high-profile critics of the US drone program has been the United Nations human rights envoy, Philip Alston. On Tuesday, he said the US government’s use of Predator drones may violate international law. Alston is the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. He raised the issue in a report to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee Tuesday and said the US should explain the legal basis for using unmanned drones for targeted killings. Alston also presented a critical report on the drone program in June to the UN Human Rights Council, but, he says, US representatives ignored his concerns.

Philip Alston joins us here in our firehouse studio. He is also a professor of law at New York University and co-chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Alston.


AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the legality of the drones. Does it surprise you how many President Obama has used, at least — what is it? — now saying one a week since the beginning of his term?

PHILIP ALSTON: Right. Well, the frequency doesn’t surprise me, because if you’re a Defense Department person, it’s a very attractive proposition. One can use the Predators without putting US servicemen in any harm. They are very effective. They can kill very significant numbers of people. And one reads very clearly that the likelihood of their usage is going to grow, I think, exponentially, in fact. So Jane Mayer’s figure of one a week is probably only just the beginning of a real expansion of the program.

AMY GOODMAN: You feel it’s illegal?

PHILIP ALSTON: There are circumstances under which it could be legal. In other words, if you are definitely in an armed conflict situation, if you ascertain that there is no other way in which you can capture the combatant that you’re trying to target, and you take all of the relevant precautions to make sure that civilians are not killed, in accordance with the relevant international rules, then it may be legitimate.

The problem is that we have no real information on this program. What Jane Mayer exposed in her New Yorker piece is probably the most detailed information we have. She herself said that the CIA provides no information. It’s extraordinary that it’s the Central Intelligence Agency which is actually operating a missile program, which is actually deciding who to kill, when and where. There’s no accountability for it. There’s no indication of the rules that they use. So, I said before, there are rules, that it’s possible to justify a particular killing, but the CIA has never tried to do that. They have simply issued a general assurance: “No, no, everything’s fine. We really follow the rules, and we’re very careful.” Well, if Israel or some other country that we’re scrutinizing says that, we say, “Sorry, guys, it’s not enough. We need to get the details.”

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for a special prosecutor to investigate?

PHILIP ALSTON: No, I’m calling for the government to make clear the details of the program; the legal basis, under US law, on which they are relying; the rules that they have put in place which govern the CIA actions, assuming there are rules; and what sort of accountability mechanisms they have. Do they review what they’ve done? They identify an individual. Often these identifications are very vague. But they say, “OK, we’ve got X in our sights.” Did they actually kill X? Did they kill someone else? How many other civilians did they kill? There’s never any accounting of that. And we need that sort of retrospective analysis, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer writes in her New Yorker piece that in exchange for being able to carry out these drone attacks in Pakistan, the CIA has added some of Pakistan’s enemies to the hit list.

PHILIP ALSTON: Right. Well, that’s one of the problems. It’s a slippery slope, of course, because you start off — it’s always the same. You start off saying, “Look, we’ve got to get someone like Osama bin Laden.” You’ve some big guy at the top. Then you get rid of the big guys, and then you start killing lower-level people. Then you get a few additional people put on the list. And who knows? Maybe we’ll be getting opium lords and various others. And then the locals are able to nominate a few of their friends that they’d like to see out of action. Unless the program is very strictly controlled, the opportunities for abuse are immense.

AMY GOODMAN: You have also, Philip Alston, raised questions about private military contractors, what some call mercenaries.

PHILIP ALSTON: Right. Certainly in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has not done nearly enough, even today, to make sure that those private military contractors do not carry out virtually all tasks, including, it seems, running a part of the drone program, to make sure —-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you know about them running the drone program?

PHILIP ALSTON: I have to be honest and say I know no more than what Jane Mayer has reported, because she’s the one who gets the intelligence from inside. But again, we’re not given any details. We don’t know what sort of training they’re given, what sort of rules they operate by. That’s the concern.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke yesterday not only about drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but you’ve just returned from the Congo. Can you talk about what you found there?

PHILIP ALSTON: Well, in the Congo, the situation is obviously extremely complex. There are a number of conflicts going on in a wide range of places. I think the area or the issue that concerned me most was encapsulated by one particular incident that I managed to document very clearly: the killing -— it’s a small incident by Congo standards, but it sort of — it really reflects the big issues. A small village called Shalio in North Kivu, fifty documented, but probably well over a hundred, civilians killed by the Congolese army; forty women abducted, raped horrendously, etc.

The Congolese army is working very closely with the UN. The MONUC, the UN mission in Congo, is giving comprehensive support and assistance to these Congolese army units. So, has the Congolese army done an investigation? No. Has anyone been prosecuted? No. What does the minister say? The minister of communications announced the day after I was in Kinshasa that, of course, they’re not going to prosecute, because to prosecute this commander, whose name is known, who’s clearly responsible, would just cause too many problems for them. Now, the difficulty is that the UN is working very closely with these guys. The UN is supporting them in every respect. And the question is, what — again, what arrangements does the UN have in place to make sure that they are not becoming complicit in the killing, the looting, the raping, which these Congolese government forces are carrying out on a large scale?

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the UN’s answer to you?

PHILIP ALSTON: The UN has given a very general response to me, saying, “Yes, it’s not a problem. We raised these issues. We’ve expressed our concern. We’ve told them we’re not happy. We’re trying to press them.” But again, those sort of assurances don’t mean anything until they’re spelled out in detail.

And linked to that, of course, is the fact that there are indicted war criminals, people for whom the International Criminal Court has actually issued a warrant, who are walking around alive and well, actually still in the military, their location known, in Goma, for example. UN forces are not doing anything to arrest them. They’re going along with the government line that it’s not worth arresting them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does it mean to be the top UN human rights investigator blasting the UN-backed Congolese military operation targeting rebels in eastern Congo, calling it catastrophic? What kind of power do you have?

PHILIP ALSTON: Well, I have to say that I’m not actually a UN official. I’m appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. I’m a special rapporteur, but I’m an independent expert. I cooperate very closely with the UN. I rely on them, in fact, to get access. But my role is not — I’m not here to criticize the UN, per se, but I’m here to sound an alarm bell to say to the UN that there are issues here which they are not addressing.

And there is, of course, a tendency to say, “Look, we have so many problems in peacekeeping, and Congo is such a difficult, problematic country. Please don’t add this to our plate.” But the response is that unless the UN itself is really making sure that it is not complicit in human rights violations, its own credibility is at risk. The likelihood of success, because of the types with whom it is working, are greatly limited. And I’d like to see a much more open accounting on the part of the UN in terms of the problems they see with these operations.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Philip Alston, back on the issue of the drone attacks that you have taken on, what kind of information has the Obama administration given to you? What have you asked for? What’s your dialogue with him?

PHILIP ALSTON: Well, I’ve been having a dialogue both with the Bush and the Obama administrations. The biggest problem that I face, but it’s not one that is of great interest to you, is a technical legal one, where the administration continues to say that these are matters of armed conflict, therefore human rights investigators have no role. In other words, their suggestion is that the UN Human Rights Council should not be looking at what the US is doing in what used to be called the war on terror.

The problem with that is that that would take off the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda about 90 percent of the cases that it’s dealing with. The Gaza report by Goldstone, what’s going on in the Congo, what happened in Sri Lanka — all these issues would be suddenly off the agenda if the US position was accepted. Fortunately, no one has accepted it, but the US continues to insist. And for that reason, they say, “So we’re not going to give you any information.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have worked with the Bush administration and the Obama administration. Do you feel a difference?

PHILIP ALSTON: On this particular issue, no.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. I want to thank you, Philip Alston, for being with us, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, arbitrary executions, also a professor of law at New York University and co-chair of the law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

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