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Exclusive: U.S. Boycotts U.N. Drone Talks

Exclusive: U.S. Boycotts U.N. Drone Talks

(This article has been updated)

Pakistan is trying to push a resolution through the United Nations Human Rights Council that would trigger greater scrutiny of whether U.S. drone strikes violate international human rights law. Washington, though, doesn’t want to talk about it.

The Pakistani draft, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, urges states to "ensure transparency" in record-keeping on drone strikes and to "conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use." It also calls for the convening of "an interactive panel discussion" on the use of drones.

The Geneva-based human rights council held its third round of discussions about the draft on Wednesday, but the Obama administration boycotted the talks.

The White House decision to sit out the negotiations is a departure from the collaborative approach the administration promised to take when it first announced plans to join the Human Rights Council in March 2009.

The Bush administration had refused to join the body out of concern that repressive states might exercise undue influence over the council and that it would focus disproportionate attention on Israel. The Obama administration, by contrast, argued it was better to reshape an imperfect organization from within than to complain about its failings from afar.

"Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement at the time. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system…. We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies."

Rhetoric aside, though, the Obama administration has largely refused to supply U.N. experts with details about the classified U.S. drone program, which has killed hundreds of suspected militants in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries over the past decade. Independent investigators say the strikes have also killed thousands of civilians, including large numbers of women and children, a charge the White House — without providing evidence to the contrary — denies.

Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s current special rapporteur for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has urged the United States to provide more basic information on the U.S. program, including its own list of civilian casualties. "The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively," he said.

Those demands are nothing new. Micah Zenko, an FP columnist and expert on drones at the Council on Foreign Relations, recalled in a recent piece that U.N. human rights investigators have been raising concerns about the U.S. targeted killing program since Nov. 15, 2002, just 12 days after the first confirmed American strike.

Asma Jahangir, then the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, asked the United States and Yemen for information the Nov. 3, 2002, missile strike, which killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen. She also expressed concern that "an alarming precedent might have been set for extrajudicial execution by consent of government." The United States declined to comment on the specific allegations, but it challenged any suggestion that "military operations against enemy combatants could be regarded as ‘extrajudicial executions by consent of governments.’"

It remains unclear what Washington will do when the Pakistani resolution is put forward for consideration next week.

Most resolutions in the Human Rights Council are adopted by consensus, but the United States has the option of forcing a vote on the resolution.But a State Department official made it clear that the United States would not support the resolution. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that the United States has in the past "regularly participated in negotiations on resolutions dealing with the need to protect human rights while countering terrorism. But this particular resolution deals solely with the use of remotely piloted aircraft."

"We just don’t see the Human Rights Council as the right forum for discussion narrowly focused on a single weapons delivery system," the official said in prepared remarks. "That has not been a traditional focus area for the HRC [Human Rights Council], in part for reasons of expertise. We do not see how refinements to the text can address this core concern. We know that others may have a different perspective, and of course we respect their right to do so."

"It is incorrect that we are unwilling to deal with important counterterrorism issues at the HRC and with its mandate holders," the official added. "We have met with UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism at senior levels when he traveled to Washington."

Speaking last week at a U.N. review of the U.S. human rights record, a top State Department lawyer, Mary McLeod, said that Washington’s use of armed drones complies with international law and stressed that Washington goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Russia, which is facing international condemnation for its annexation of Crimea, used the body’s most recent meeting to argue that a provision raising concern about the prospects for civilian casualties from drone attacks wasn’t strong enough. The current provision, Russia’s delegate noted, "doesn’t reflect the seriousness of situation with remotely piloted aircraft," according to notes from the meeting.

Andrea Prasow, an American lawyer who tracks national security issues for Human Rights Watch, said the United States was passing up a golden opportunity to influence the U.N. debate on drones. 

"This resolution would be the first time the council is going to do anything about drones and the U.S. is not participating in any of the informal discussion about language, " she said. "They are telling us they are reserving judgment on the resolution, which means they won’t be happy with it. We have also heard from them and others as well they are concerned that the council doesn’t have jurisdiction over this issue. I think it’s ludicrous to say the Human Rights Council doesn’t have anything to say about drone strikes."

Questions about the legality and morality of drone strikes have bedeviled the administration for years. Last May, President Barack Obama announced in a speech before the National Defense University that he would curtail the use of drones and other controversial practices associated with the U.S.-led war on terrorism. And there have been no reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan for months.

Still, the classified guidelines outlining the new policy call for transferring control over drone strikes to the military have never been implemented. Earlier this year, the White House reportedly debated whether to launch a drone strike against a Pakistan-based American citizen suspected of plotting a terror attack against the United States. Had he been killed, the unnamed man would have been the fifth U.S. citizen killed by an American drone during Obama’s presidency.