The Obama administration’s drone and targeted killing policy will come under scrutiny at the United Nations today with a report concluding at least 400 Pakistani civilians have been killed by drone strikes over the past decade. Another 200 victims have been deemed “probable non-combatants.” The report also looks at U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, as well as Israel’s use of drones in Gaza. The U.N. report comes at a time when U.S. drone policy is facing unprecedented public criticism. Earlier this week, Amnesty International said some civilian drone killings in Pakistan may amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged President Obama to end drone strikes in Pakistan. Ahead of unveiling his findings today at the United Nations General Assembly, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, joins us to discuss his probe of the U.S. drone war.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
Juan González: The Obama administration’s drone and targeted killing policy will come under scrutiny today at the United Nations. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism is scheduled to present a report that concludes at least 400 Pakistani civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes over the past decade. Another 200 victims have been deemed “probable non-combatants.” The report also looks at U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, as well as Israel’s use of drones in Gaza.
The U.N. report comes at a time when U.S. drone policy is facing unprecedented public criticism. Earlier this week, Amnesty International said some drone killings in Pakistan may amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Then, on Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged U.S. President Barack Obama to end drone strikes in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: Pakistan and the United States have a strong, ongoing counterterrorism cooperation. We have agreed to further strengthen this cooperation. I also brought up the issue of drones in our meeting, emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.
Amy Goodman: During his public remarks with Nawaz Sharif, President Obama did not directly address the U.S. drone war.
President Barack Obama: We talked about security and the concerns that both of us have about senseless violence, terrorism and extremism. And we agreed that we need to continue to find constructive ways to partner together, ways that respect Pakistan’s sovereignty, that respect the concerns of both countries. And I’m optimistic that we can continue to make important strides in moving forward, because both the Pakistani people and the American people have suffered terribly from terrorism in the past.
Amy Goodman: One day after the Pakistani leader met with President Obama, The Washington Post revealed how the United States and Pakistan communicated about, and in some cases coordinated, dozens of drone strikes in Pakistan from late 2007 to late 2011.
To talk more about this growing debate, we’re joined by Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism. He will be addressing the U.N. General Assembly today.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
Ben Emmerson: Thanks, Amy.
Amy Goodman: Talk about your findings.
Ben Emmerson: Well, I think, first of all, the first point to make is this is not a final report, so “findings” is perhaps putting it too high. This is a process of dialogue which will involve a number of reports, both to the General Assembly and to the Human Rights Council. And what I’m presenting to the General Assembly this morning is an interim report.
In terms of the key issues, what we sought to do was to take an overview of the use, the deployment of armed drones both by the United States and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and of course by Israel in Gaza, as well, to get a sense of the difficulties involved in assessing civilian casualty levels. And I make it absolutely clear there are real practical problems in that process, partly due to the lack of transparency from the states engaged in these counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, and partly because of the sheer topographical challenges involved in conducting investigations in these largely ungoverned or poorly governed spaces.
So, at this stage, the principal recommendation of the report is that where states have a credible information from any source, including sources like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, that civilians have been killed or injured, then they are under an obligation, of course, to conduct their own investigations—and, no doubt, all states do conduct their own investigations when deploying this technology—but more important than that for the public process, that the results of those investigations should be disclosed. We’ve seen, for example, in Afghanistan, a couple of instances where both the U.S. and, in one case, the U.K. have released, declassified investigation reports or the summaries of the findings of investigation reports involving drone strikes where civilians have been killed. And that type of transparency goes an awful long way to allaying people’s concerns that there is a disproportionate risk of civilian casualties.
Juan González: And the—as a policy matter, what is—do you see problems with the United States in terms of even actually recognizing or seeking to report civilian casualties?
Ben Emmerson: Well, I mean, the principal historical problem, clearly, is that somebody in the earlier administration, the Bush administration, thought it was a smart idea to hand control of what amounts to the delivery of ordnance through the air in an act of war to an organization, the CIA, which by its own terms, and as with all secret intelligence organizations, cannot either confirm or deny the existence of its operations. That is an essential operating prerequisite for clandestine intelligence organizations, and it’s exactly why clandestine intelligence organizations are not the right body to be carrying out acts of counterinsurgency warfare. And, I mean, obviously one of the principal tenets of the president’s speech at the National Defense University in May was that the use of armed drones would migrate away from CIA and into the hands of DOD, and that certainly is part of what we would see as a development towards transparency and accountability.
Amy Goodman: Going from CIA to Pentagon. Well, let me ask you—earlier this week, State Department spokesperson Maria Harf suggested Amnesty and Human Rights Watch were overestimating the number of civilians killed by U.S. drones but offered no facts to back up what she was saying. She was repeatedly questioned about why the administration has refused to release information about civilians killed by U.S. drones.
Reporter 1: If you dispute these figures by these organizations, do you have—do you counter with your own figures? Do you have figures of your own?
Maria Harf: We do certainly have this kind of information.
Reporter 1: Could you tell us what these figures are?
Maria Harf: Well, I think I’d make a point—I knew where that—where that’s where this was going, Said. And I think I’d make the point that when we make determinations about issues like this one, that substantial information concerning U.S. counterterrorism strike, it’s collected through a variety of sources and methods. In order to protect these sources and methods, we can’t make much of this information publicly available, because we want to have access to that information in the future. … We take a full, holistic picture of what happened before and after such operations to make determinations about these things. So it’s a much more complete picture than any one non-governmental organization would likely have on the ground.
Reporter 2: OK, well, this is two non-governmental organizations, two—
Maria Harf: Or two.
Reporter 2: Two organizations which you have held up in the past as conducting accurate and credible reports on things like in Syria.
Maria Harf: Every situation is different.
Reporter 2: Oh, so they just don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to drones in Pakistan?
Maria Harf: We evaluate every report separately. We don’t make blanket statements about organizations’ reports before seeing them. That would seem to be a little unreasonable.
Amy Goodman: State Department spokesperson Maria Harf. Ben Emmerson, your response?
Ben Emmerson: Well, first of all, the core of the problem with the U.S. government’s refusal to identify its own estimates of civilian casualties lies in what you’ve just heard: the justification that this would compromise sources and methods. Now, obviously, I am not privy to the details of that justification, but what I do know is that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, during his confirmation hearings, himself, suggested that transparency and accountability calls for the release of precisely the information that in that clip you saw it being suggested that the information can’t safely be released. And one would have thought that before making that statement, Mr. Brennan, who knows a thing or two about intelligence risks and about the need to protect sources and methods, would have had those considerations well in mind.
The basic position that my report takes on this question is that considerations of national security may, in certain circumstances, justify withholding limited information about particular strikes, if to do that would compromise an individual source or an individual operation, but that, in general, statistical and methodological information can safely be released and should be released. And by methodological information I mean explaining how and why a decision has been taken to calculate in a particular strike the number of civilian casualties, because there’s a big dispute about who is a civilian in this context.
Juan González: And I would like to ask you also about the actual legality or illegality of the drone strikes. Clearly, we’ve seen in many of these countries this dance of, the one hand, the leaders of the countries condemning the strikes, while on the other hand we’re getting reports in among journalists close to power sources in the U.S. that this is merely for the local public consumption, that the leaders are really supportive of these strikes. This whole issue of how you see the actual legality of these strikes?
Ben Emmerson: Yes. Well, first of all, I mean, there are, if you like, two separate questions there. The first is the issue of consent to the use of force on the territory of another state. And although—I mean, I take the description that you give. In reality, the allegation has only been leveled at Pakistan that it would say in public—or the government would say in public for public consumption that it was opposed to the use of drone strikes whilst in private consenting to their continued operation. And I think—and I indicate this in the report—that there is pretty clear evidence that that was the position in the past. And we’ve seen some recent leaks in The Washington Post, but, I mean, it was well known before that. And indeed former President Musharraf himself indicated that that was the position in a recent interview during the course of the Pakistani presidential elections.
But, you know, governments change, and situations change. And in 2012, the Pakistani Parliament passed a resolution, the effect of which was to rescind all prior consents and to require consent to be done above board, to be done in writing, to be provided to the relevant committees, to be approved during debates on the floor of the House of Parliament. And that hasn’t been done, and therefore, really, whatever levels of cooperation there may continue to be at an intelligence level, if we support, as we must, the democratic process in Pakistan, the elected representatives of the people in Pakistan unanimously have adopted a position that the government cannot lawfully consent other than to do—other than by doing so through a prescribed procedure. So, the short answer to the question is, my view, certainly on the information that I’ve received from the government of Pakistan over quite an extensive period of time, is that currently—this is not by any means a statement as to the position in the past, but currently—Pakistan does not give valid consent in international law to the use of force on its territory.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to ask you about Israel’s use of drones in Gaza. What did you find?
Ben Emmerson: Well, one of the difficulties with analysis of the position in Israel is that currently Israel has suspended its relations with the Human Rights Council. And the consequence of that is that Israel has not formally cooperated with this process so far.
Amy Goodman: And they’ve done that because?
Ben Emmerson: The suspended their relations with the Human Rights Council? Well, I think the given reason was a position taken by the council in relation to settlements. It’s nothing to do with drones. But that is the position as we sit here today. I think all of us within the U.N. are optimistic that Israel will shortly re-establish its relationship with the Human Rights Council, and the high commissioner for human rights has called on Israel to—effectively, to re-engage. And that is, in fact, part of the reason—by no means the only reason, but part of the reason—why this process needs to take place over a period of time, because I’m very keen to engage directly with the state of Israel.
And I hope that those who have been following this process will see from the content of the report that I have tried to do justice to the position of all sides in this debate. I mean, I make it absolutely clear I wouldn’t want this report to be held up as though it were a condemnation of the United States. We’re nowhere near that position at the moment. What we are seeking to do is to encourage states to engage constructively. I mean, you asked about law. The fact of the matter is that there are many crucial areas in this debate on which international lawyers disagree. And states disagree. I mean, the United States has an analysis which some—in some parts of the world is regarded as legally unsustainable, but in other parts of the world is regarded as credible and realistic, and as a modern adaptation of the Geneva Conventions, to what we call asymmetrical conflict—in other words, where one party to a conflict is a non-state armed group labeled as a terrorist organization.
Juan González: Well, in that vein, you also raise questions about how the United States defines associated forces or co-belligerence as a rationale for some of these—for mounting some of these drone strikes. Could you expand on that?
Ben Emmerson: Well, yes. I mean, I think one of the—one of the lessons of the past decade, since the crime against humanity that was committed in New York and Washington in 2001, is that attacks that have been mounted in order to destroy al-Qaeda Central have been significantly successful, but the consequence has been like the hydra, where the head is cut off, the creation of—I mean, the current estimate is somewhere near 40 organizations pledging, broadly speaking, allegiance to the same philosophy of violent extremism under the name of Islamist politics and with an anti-Western and anti-U.S. agenda, spreading from Central North Africa right the way across to the Middle East and Syria. And we hear the stories every day.
So, if the United States were to take the position that it remains in a state of armed conflict—because that is its position in relation to al-Qaeda—with all of these organizations, wherever they are, then of course the United States would be condemning itself to a permanent state of war. I mean, I think probably your viewers aren’t necessarily alive to the fact that the United States is at war in Yemen and is at war in the FATA region of Pakistan, because it considers itself to be engaged in what’s known as a non-international armed conflict—a war, in other words—with the al-Qaeda-related groups in those areas.
So, the answer to your question is, I think there is a real realization within the administration—and we see hints of this in the May speech from the president, but we also see it more explicitly in some of the speeches that have been made by former officials like Harold Koh and Jeh Johnson—a real realization that in order to bring this conflict to an end, the effective way to do that is not to have an ever-expanding list of so-called co-belligerent organizations.