The Multilateralist

Targeted killings, blurry limits

I wrote yesterday about the issue of American targeted killings and the calls for greater clarity from the administration. For further insight, I spoke today to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch about the letter that HRW sent to the White House. Roth argues that clarity from the administration is essential.  "There are ...

I wrote yesterday about the issue of American targeted killings and the calls for greater clarity from the administration. For further insight, I spoke today to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch about the letter that HRW sent to the White House. Roth argues that clarity from the administration is essential.  "There are two sets of rules, either international humanitarian law or policing rules, and they should clarify which rules apply where and the standards that they believe govern." The administration's attempts to explain the U.S. position thus far, Roth says, "haven't answered any of the difficult questions." Roth argues that the challenge is articulating limits, not negotiating new treaties or protocols:

The existing rules are fine. The question is in a place like Yemen, which rules are they applying. [Negotiating new rules] is a complete red herring. It's an issue of taking broadly accepted rules and articulating which ones apply and why...

[The Obama administration] has deliberately maintained ambiguity here. But they're leaving it to others to interpret their actions...This is not simply about drones--to talk about drones  makes it almost too easy because the United States can say we would shoot down any drones that came over U.S. territory. But this is about whether you can summarily kill people simply by calling them combatants wherever you find. I doubt the administration thinks you can. They haven't articulated a theory that would place limits on their ability to use lethal force and their failure to do so is dangerous.

I wrote yesterday about the issue of American targeted killings and the calls for greater clarity from the administration. For further insight, I spoke today to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch about the letter that HRW sent to the White House. Roth argues that clarity from the administration is essential.  "There are two sets of rules, either international humanitarian law or policing rules, and they should clarify which rules apply where and the standards that they believe govern." The administration’s attempts to explain the U.S. position thus far, Roth says, "haven’t answered any of the difficult questions." Roth argues that the challenge is articulating limits, not negotiating new treaties or protocols:

The existing rules are fine. The question is in a place like Yemen, which rules are they applying. [Negotiating new rules] is a complete red herring. It’s an issue of taking broadly accepted rules and articulating which ones apply and why…

[The Obama administration] has deliberately maintained ambiguity here. But they’re leaving it to others to interpret their actions…This is not simply about drones–to talk about drones  makes it almost too easy because the United States can say we would shoot down any drones that came over U.S. territory. But this is about whether you can summarily kill people simply by calling them combatants wherever you find. I doubt the administration thinks you can. They haven’t articulated a theory that would place limits on their ability to use lethal force and their failure to do so is dangerous.

Roth believes the issue is being actively debated within the administration but acknowledges that certain voices are no doubt arguing for saying nothing more, thereby maintaining maximum flexibility. "We wanted to point out that there is a danger to the maximum flexibility approach. I’d rather have the administration take the first crack at interpreting that rather than China or Russia."

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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