• Friday, April 02, 2010

    Special Rapporteur comments on US legal justification for targeted killings

    In an interview with Democracy Now on 1 April 2010, Special Rapporteur Philip Alston discussed the recent speech by US State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, discussing the US's legal justifications for targeted killings and drone attacks. The Special Rapporteur welcomed the US’s “first step” in describing its legal position publicly. He noted, however, that additional detail was necessary:

    "[One of] the big issues that [Harold Koh] didn’t answer are first of all what law are you applying? He very casually said we are applying either the law of armed conflict or the rules governing the rights to self defense of a state, [but] those two sets of rules are radically different."

    Professor Alston also noted that Koh had not specified whether the US was applying international human rights law in addition to the law of armed conflict, and had not addressed the controversial involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in the operations in Pakistan. He added:

    "The real problem is that Harold Koh’s statement was essentially arguing that you’ve got to trust us: I’ve looked at this very carefully, I’m very sensitive to these issues and all is well … he himself said this is not the time for a legal opinion. Of course my view is, it is the time for a legal opinion rather than a public relations statement."

    In contrast, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (“A Defense of Drones,” Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2010) applauded what it referred to as the “meticulous, even fastidious” justification of drone strikes by Koh. According to the editorial, Koh’s speech is a “useful riposte to the growing chatter from the anti-antiterror left,” including “UN human-rights investigator Philip Alston,” who “made headlines last fall by suggesting drone strikes might violate international law.” The editorial describes Koh’s comments as follows:

    “He said the Administration's practice of targeting terrorists complies fully with the laws of war… As a matter of international law, the country has been at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban since [11 September 2001] and has every right to exercise its 'inherent right of self defense,' including strikes against terrorist leaders.”

    Contrary to those who claim targeting a particular person represents unlawful extrajudicial killing or violates the law of war, Koh said, “individuals who are part of such an armed group are belligerents and, therefore, lawful targets under international law.”

    According to the Wall Street Journal editorial, drones are an “effective and moral alternative” to “the tools available in previous wars” because of their precision, and they “represent one of America's major asymmetrical advantages in the war on terror.”

    For further commentary on Koh’s speech see here.



  • Sunday, April 04, 2010

    Pakistan: Escalating strikes by US drones reported

    US drone strikes in Pakistan have been “fast and furious” since the suicide bombing of a CIA base in southern Afghanistan in December 2009, and have force alleged militants to adjust their tactics, according to the New York Times.

    The NYT noted that the “impact of the drone strikes on the militants’ operations — on freedom of movement, ability to communicate and the ease of importing new recruits to replace those who have been killed — has been difficult to divine because North Waziristan [where the strikes take place], at the nether reaches of the tribal area, is virtually sealed from the outside world.” According to the NYT, "[i]n the first six weeks of this year, more than a dozen strikes killed up to 90 people."

    Based on conversations with an alleged militant and with supporters of the Pakistani government, none of whom would allow their names to be used, the NYT reports that “militants” have had to change evasive tactics because of the pace and prevalence of drone strikes. Despite increased pressure from the drone strikes, however, the NYT reports that “militant operations have by no means stopped.”
    The alleged militant told the Times that the attacks were killing “rank-and-file fighters”, not just leaders. Both he and the Pakistani Government supporters acknowledged that civilian deaths were a constant concern.

    Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has expressed concern about the lawfulness of drone killings in the Pakistani border region, and requested that the US disclose its legal basis for the killings. Recently, the US State Department Legal Advisor gave a speech that addressed some of the legal justifications, which the Special Rapporteur welcomed as "a good start". The Special Rapporteur noted, however, that fundamental questions remained unanswered, including the legal framework that is being applied by the US, as well the rules that govern CIA operations. The CIA is widely reported to be conducting the drone attacks in Pakistan.




  • Monday, April 05, 2010

    Colombia: Shifting public image, but systemic human rights problems remain, say human rights groups

    Human rights groups are urging Canada to conduct a comprehensive human rights impact review before it enters into a proposed trade agreement with Colombia, according to the Toronto Star. The Toronto Star article describes the context for the issue: the US Congress is “balking” at a US-Colombia trade agreement “due to human rights concerns and the European Union is divided. So Canada is the test case.”

    The Star quotes a Canadian Government official who says that the trade agreement would have benefits because it "will help solidify efforts by the government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy. The government of Colombia has taken positive steps towards this goal." On the other hand, Colombian human rights defenders and international NGOs tell the Toronto Star that Colombia’s security gains are “cosmetic”, that human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings continue, and that civilians have been forcibly displaced from land that has “economic importance”. Amnesty International Canada’s Colombia specialist tells the Star that “Canada should not allow trade and investment policy to exacerbate the situation by allowing Canadian companies to profit from land grabs.”

    In describing on-going human rights concerns, the article quotes Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s finding, in a press statement issued at the conclusion of his June 2009 visit to Colombia, that “the sheer number of [unlawful killings by the Colombian military], their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.”

    The Special Rapporteur’s full press statement on his mission to Colombia is available here. His final report will be issued in June 2010.





  • Tuesday, April 06, 2010

    New US counterterrorism approach a change in "style" instead of "substance," author argues

    Eli Lake extensively argues in Reason magazine that the Obama administration’s break from “the Bush era” in its counterterrorism approach amounts to mere “differences in style [that] mask a sameness in substance.” According to Lake, several worrisome policies instituted under the Bush administration continue under the Obama administration:

    “The [US] still reserves the right to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely without charge, try them via military tribunal, keep them imprisoned even if they are acquitted, and kill them in foreign countries with which America is not formally at war….”

    Lake quotes UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who states that, “The [US] under President Obama has apparently maintained the Bush administration’s view that, because it is involved in a global armed conflict against AL Qaeda, it is permitted to target and kill relevant individuals anywhere in the world.”

    Lake argues that the procedural and political mechanisms in place for limiting Presidential overreach in a conflict with “no geographic boundaries and no clear endpoint” are “fundamentally handicapped” by lack of public accountability. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has expressed concern about the lawfulness of drone killings in the Pakistani border region, and requested that the US disclose its legal basis for the killings. Recently, the US State Department Legal Advisor gave a speech that addressed some of the legal justifications, which the Special Rapporteur welcomed as "a good start". The Special Rapporteur noted, however, that fundamental questions remained unanswered, including the legal framework that is being applied by the US.

  • Thursday, April 08, 2010

    Special Rapporteur comments on US authorization to target US citizen al-Awlaki

    In an interview with Democracy Now, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, comments on the US’s official acknowledgment that Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based Muslim cleric who is also an American-born US citizen, has been placed on the CIA’s capture-or-kill list.

    Al-Awlaki is “accused of having ties to the failed Christmas Day airline bombing and the shooting at Fort Hood.” According to Democracy Now, in reference to the case of al-Awlaki, officials said, “it is extremely rare if not unprecedented for a US citizen to be approved for assassination.” Democracy Now quotes Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair as saying, “Being a US citizen will not spare an American from getting assassinated by military or intelligence operatives overseas if the individual is working with terrorists and planning to attack fellow Americans.” According to Democracy Now, Blair added, “We don’t target people for free speech, we target them for taking action that threatens Americans.”

    For Special Rapporteur Alston, the fact that “we don’t know what [al-Awlaki] is accused of,” makes it difficult to determine the legality of the order authorizing his targeting. According to the Special Rapporteur, the US has justified placing al-Awlaki on the capture-or-kill list based on the accusation that he is working with a group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda. This, however, leaves several further questions. As the Special Rapporteur states, one factor in determining the legality of targeting al-Awlaki is whether he is taking “an active part in hostilities,” for instance, planning operations or acting as a member of a chain of command, or whether he is just “a propaganda man.” Even if he is taking active part in hostilities, as the Special Rapporteur further explains, the legality of targeting him depends on a determination of what armed conflict al-Awlaki is involved in with the Unites States, which necessarily implicates unresolved questions about the extent of the armed conflict against terrorism and whether it includes Yemen. According to the Special Rapporteur in the interview, as regards Yemen, “most observers would question whether there is an ongoing armed conflict.”

    In the interview, the Special Rapporteur also questions the US’s recent justification for targeting individuals based on the right to self-defense as an alternative to targeting in the context of an armed conflict. The Special Rapporteur refers to the requirement that a threat of attack against a country be imminent for the proper invocation of self-defense and states, “Clearly, that’s not really happening here, and it’s rather odd to invoke it for the first time some ten years after, nine years after [the September 11, 2001 attacks].”

  • Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Asia Times reports that US military relies on "false tips" in Afghanistan

    The Asia Times reports on the tragic results of the US military’s reliance on false intelligence by local cooperators in the Afghan conflict, due to the US military’s lack of “understanding of the personal, tribal and other socio-political conflicts” in Afghanistan. In efforts to identify members of the Taliban, US forces often depend on the information provided by local sources like tribal leaders and warlords who, according to the report, “may act in their own self-interest.”

    The news report refers to the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston, who, in his May 2009 report on his mission to Afghanistan, has drawn attention to the same phenomenon. In his mission report, the Special Rapporteur cites discussions with local leaders and government officials claiming that “civilian casualties had often been caused by international forces acting on false tips,” and that these tips were often made by individuals “[who make] a business of acting as intermediaries” and giving false tips to international forces “in return for payment from individuals holding grudges.”

    The latest tragedy which the Asia Times suggests resulted from the US’s reliance on wrong intelligence is the killing of three women and two Afghan government officials in a US Special Operations raid on what was supposed to be the compound of a Taliban leader. Reportedly, an earlier false tip led to a 2008 US bombing raid on what turned out to be a memorial service, thereby killing 90 civilians, including 60 children. In that case, according to the Asia Times, “Afghan officials expressed certainty that US commanders had been misled by a rival” of the clan leader who was the subject of the memorial service.

  • Monday, April 19, 2010

    Philippines: Reported concerns that military activity may undermine upcoming elections

    The Wall Street Journal reports “increased military activity as [the Philippines] gears up for May elections, triggering concerns that the crackdown is undermining the [country’s] fragile democracy.” In late 2009, a militia alleged to be working for a local politician and his family massacred 57 people, a group which included, according to the WSJ, “political rivals, passerby, and dozens of journalists.” This particularly prominent incident, however, merely highlights much more widespread killings. The WSJ article notes allegations by a Philippine NGO that “army soldiers or government-supported militias have summarily executed more than 1,000 suspected rebels and activists since 2001.” According to the article, the army disputes the figures but does not offer a lower number.

    In describing the concerns about military influence in the election process, the article refers to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions Philip Alston’s findings that the army is "'in denial' about the extent of the problem and sometimes offers only circumstantial evidence that leftist groups are fronts for the NPA [the armed communist insurgency]."

    In his 2009 report on the Philippines, the Special Rapporteur describes how military action in the name of “counterinsurgency” often targets members of civil society and threatens to narrow the range of legitimate political discourse. In December 2009, following the Maguindanao massacre, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston also issued a joint press statement with UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, urging the government to "establish a high-level task force, with broad political support, to identify the measures that should be taken to prevent killings that occur in the lead-up to the elections."

  • Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Upcoming conference: Preventing "Witchcraft" Related Abuse

    In a May 2009 report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions discussed in detail the persecution and killing of so-called witches, which he characterized as "a significant phenomenon in many parts of the world, although it has not featured prominently on the radar screen of human rights monitors."

    Subsequently, the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) was established in 2009 by an NGO, Stepping Stones Nigeria, in order to "facilitate partnerships and collaboration between individuals and organisations who encounter the victims of witchcraft accusations and magical or religious practices," according to a member of WHRIN. WHRIN is celebrating the launch of its website with its first international conference, entitled Preventing “Witchcraft” Related Abuse. Information on the conference is available on the organisation's website.

  • Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    US Congressional subcommittee examines legality of drone strikes

    On 28 April, the subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the US House of Representatives held a hearing on the legality of unmanned drone strikes. In his opening remarks for the hearing, subcommittee chair John Tierney said:

    The use of unmanned weapons to target individuals - and, for that matter, the targeting of individuals in general - raises many complex legal questions. We must examine who can be a legitimate target, where that person can be legally targeted, and when the risk of collateral damage is too high. We must ask whether it makes a difference if the military carries out an attack, or whether other government entities such as the Central Intelligence Agency may legally conduct such attacks.

    News accounts of the hearing, excerpting from the different arguments offered in defense and opposition of the current drone policy, are available here and here. A webcast of the hearing as well as full written testimony of all the speakers is available here.