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UN rights advocate to the American people: Can we please have a debate on water-boarding now?

Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for counter-terrorism and human rights, has waded into the U.S. presidential election, denouncing President Barack Obama’s ultra-secretive drone policy and blasting Governor Mitt Romney for a permissive attitude toward water-boarding. In a speech Thursday at Harvard law school, the U.N. human rights experts sounded dismayed that there has been ...

Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for counter-terrorism and human rights, has waded into the U.S. presidential election, denouncing President Barack Obama’s ultra-secretive drone policy and blasting Governor Mitt Romney for a permissive attitude toward water-boarding.

In a speech Thursday at Harvard law school, the U.N. human rights experts sounded dismayed that there has been virtually no debate in the presidential election over controversial issues like enhanced interrogation techniques, drone attacks, targeted killings, and other practices from the U.S. led war on terror.

"We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones. But the issue of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques is one which, according to the record, continues to divide them," according to Emmerson’s prepared statement.   "It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue has not even featured during their presidential election, and got no mention at all in Monday night’s foreign policy debate."

"This surely is an issue that is worth debating in the foreign policy aspect of the current election," according to the statement.

The U.N. rights experts used the Harvard speech to announce plans to establish a new U.N. office in Geneva early next year to investigate alleged killing of civilians in drone attacks by the U.S. and other governments. He sharply criticized the Obama administration for embracing some of the more controversial policies of the Bush Administration, citing efforts by U.S. officials to "provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."

But he reserved his fiercest criticism for Romney. "I should make it absolutely clear that my mandate does not see eye to eye with the Obama administration on a range of issues –not least the lack of transparency over the drone program," he said. "But on this issue the President has been clear since he took office, that water-boarding is torture, that it is contrary to American values and that it would stop."

"But Governor Romney has said that he does not believe that water boarding is torture, Emmerson added. "He said that he would allow enhanced interrogation techniques that go beyond those now permitted by the army field manual, and his security advisors have recommended that he rescind the existing restrictions."

"If Governor Romney or his advisers believe that water-boarding is not torture then they are quite simply wrong," he said. "The rest of the world is quite clear on this, and some countries are, as we speak, going after those responsible."

Emmerson, meanwhile, pressed his case for greater transparency over the United States use of drones in the war on terror, saying that there was a need to establish the basic facts surrounding each targeting killing to ensure that all efforts are being made to insure civilians are not caught in the cross fire. While there are no official numbers on casualties during drone strikes, which remains shrouded in mystery, Emmerson cited figures published by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Reporting indicating that at least 474 civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone, and that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow strikes that killed civilians who came to the aid of victims of previous strikes.

"My colleague, Chrsitof Heynes, the Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view," he said.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on Emmerson’s speech, directing this reporter to review past statements on the matter by White House counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, and other senior administration officials. In an address to the Woodrow Wilson Center in May Brennan provided his most detailed defense of the program, saying that precision drone strikes presented less risk to civilians than traditional military attacks.

Emmerson said there is growing international momentum to hold those responsible for killing civilians in the course of targeted killings accountable for their crimes. He cited appeals by several states in the Human Rights Council — including Pakistan, where elite American Navy Seals assassinated Osama Bin Laden  – to investigate the use of drones. China and Russia-two countries with woeful human rights records – have backed a similar approach.

Emmerson said that ultimate responsible for investigating targeted killings lies with the states that order such acts, but that if they fail to do so "then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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