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New UN Investigation Focuses on US Drone Program

by Carl Wicklander, published


The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Counterterrorism has begun an investigation into the use of 25 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories.

According to, the U.N. investigation focuses on the U.S. drone program and was instigated by Pakistan and two unnamed permanent members of the Security Council, likely Russia and China. Leading the investigation is Ben Emmerson of Britain who says the technology for drones "is here to stay" and "It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law."

Drones, an unmanned aircraft capable of firing missiles, have become one of the more visible prongs of President Obama's counter-terrorism tactics, although the administration only admitted to the use of drones in January 2012.

Arguments against drone warfare cite that as many as 50 civilians are killed for every confirmed slain militant while arguments in favor claim the aircraft can "kill such looming figures in the radical world without sacrificing a single troop," and they work with precision from afar.

These benefits came to the forefront on September 30, 2011 when suspected terrorist and American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a targeted strike in Yemen. Yet, the al-Awlaki killing was controversial because he was an American citizen suspected, not charged, of participating in terrorism. Al-Awlaki's son, also an American citizen, was killed in the following month by a drone. In 2012, al-Awlaki's family filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for killing "without due process."

Public sentiment about drones in the U.S. has been difficult to discern because the mission of drones in the U.S. and abroad differ. When the subject of drones is brought up, Americans focus on domestic use of the technology. Little, within the US, has been done to curb the use of these drones, but a domestic drone market is emerging with a forecasted $89 billion worldwide market for them over the next decade.

Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation last summer, "The Preserving Freedom From Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012," to force state and federal governments to receive a warrant before domestic drones could be used to monitor American citizens. The bill died in committee and the use of drones, home and abroad, remains largely untouched.

Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, who has written extensively about Washington's use of drones, recently profiled the opinion of Pakistanis regarding drones. Although it is regularly reported that the drones have "divided" Pakistani opinion, Friedersdorf found that Pew poll data contradicts these reports:

"Among people who know about drones, opponents outnumber supporters by more than two to one, but only 56 percent of Pakistanis know about the drone program. Given these figures and trends, you'd think that proponents of more drone strikes in Pakistan would want as few additional people as possible to know about them. Secrecy is the approach the Obama administration and Pakistan's government have taken."

The U.S. drone program presents one of the more controversial elements of modern warfare. Where does fighting terrorism end and where do personal privacy and due process begin?

Supporters claim drone warfare is safer because it saves the lives of American soldiers, but the program is more unpopular abroad than most reporting suggests and its reliability is still largely unquantifiable. The U.N. investigation may be a first step toward standardizing the tactics in this type of warfare, but its implementation is still likely to cause controversy for all parties.

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