Death from the skies

Philip Alston, the United Nations' special representative on extrajudicial killings, has presented a report to that body's Human Rights Council calling on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of unmanned Predator drones to kill suspected terrorists in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, which are outside the official war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. His report also suggests that the U.S. military, rather than the CIA, should be in charge of running the drone attacks because it is more accountable under international law than the secretive civilian spy agency.

Mr. Alston's report doesn't suggest that the American drone program, which President Barack Obama greatly expanded after taking office last year, isn't effective. In fact, it was credited recently with killing al-Qaeda's No. 3 commander. His criticism centers, rather, on the fact that the military has clear obligations under international law to ensure that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum and to investigate incidents in which innocent civilians are killed — none of which apply to the CIA.

Leaving aside the fact that the U.S. military is also very good at keeping secrets — and that the CIA is just as accountable to the president as are the uniformed services — what the U.N. report fails to mention are any alternatives to the drone war currently being waged in Pakistan and Yemen, whose leaders refuse to allow U.S. troops on their soil even though large parts of both countries remain outside the control of their governments.

In such cases, there's a strong argument to be made that the relative pinpoint accuracy of the drone missile strikes make the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates far less destructive of civilian lives and property than conventional operations involving ground troops, artillery and aerial bombing — not to mention that military invasions of some of the world's most lawless regions would be impractical, to say the least. When was the last time the U.N. agreed to send international peacekeeping forces into Yemen or Pakistan to root out terrorist operatives and training camps on America's behalf?

The reality is that the U.S. is obliged to use whatever means it can to defend itself effectively, and legalistic arguments over whether the drone program should come under military or CIA control may be a distinction without a difference. Despite the Obama administration's insistence on basing national security strategy on multilateral cooperation with other countries rather than on unilateral action, this may be one U.N. suggestion the U.S. should ignore.

There is an issue raised by Mr. Alston's report that does bear serious consideration, however. Up to now, the U.S. has been the only nation to employ drones to carry out targeted killings of individuals identified as terrorist threats, even though dozens of other countries, including Russia, China and Israel, possess similar technology. What happens when they decide to use it against enemies far outside their borders whom they consider terrorists? And to whom will they be accountable when innocent civilians are injured or killed?

A CIA spokesman insisted last week that the agency's targeted killings using drones was completely legal under international law. Still, officials would be wise to take up Mr. Alston's suggestion that the U.S. meet with other major military powers and human rights organizations to clarify the ground rules regarding how and when such weapons may be used. Is a farmer forced by the Pakistani Taliban to dig holes for roadside bombs at night a legitimate target, for example? As the technology for raining death from the skies becomes ever more widely available and used by countries who may not share our view of who or what constitutes a threat, these are the kinds of questions the U.S. can ill afford not to ask.

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