Targeted Killing: Drones

Ben Emmerson Statement on Visit to Washington

By Benjamin Wittes
Sunday, June 9, 2013, 9:08 PM

Ben Emmerson, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, issued the following statement on Friday following a visit to Washington.

WASHINGTON DC (7 June 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, today concluded a week long visit to Washington DC in which he sought clarification on aspects of President Obama’s 23 May speech on US counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University. 

During his visit to Washington DC, the Special Rapporteur held meetings with senior lawyers at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the President’s National Security Staff.

He also met with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as with the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting and the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights of the President's National Security Staff.

During these meetings, the Special Rapporteur discussed with officials a range of issues relevant to his mandate. He wishes to express his appreciation to all administration interlocutors for the constructive and open manner in which these discussions took place, and he looks forward to continuing this dialogue.

In addition to his meetings with administration officials the Special Rapporteur took part in a high level round table discussion on the US drone and targeted killing strategy organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, and also took part in the Global Security Forum organized by Fordham Law School’s Centre on National Security and the New America Foundation.

At the end of his visit the Special Rapporteur said:

“President Obama’s National Defense University Speech is a critical document mapping out the parameters of US counter-terrorism policy going forward. It is to be welcomed as a significant step towards greater transparency and accountability; and as a declaration that the US war with Al Qaida and its associated forces is coming to an end. The President’s principled commitment to ensuring the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention centre as soon as possible is an utterly essential step in resolving this conflict.

The clear statement in the President’s speech that the time has come to tackle not only the manifestations of terrorism but also its social, economic and political root causes around the world - to seek long term solutions in other words - signals a shift in rhetoric and a move in policy emphasis towards promoting a strategy of sustainable and ethical counter-terrorism.

The three objectives – an end to the military conflict with Al Qaida and its associates, the closure of Guantanamo, and the development of an active strategy to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism – are essential goals for promoting international peace and security.

I would urge all those on Capitol Hill to give this agenda bi-partisan support. These three goals are far too important for international peace and security, as well as for the safety of American citizens, to be allowed to become a political football in Congressional politics.

As for the use of targeted killing by drones the speech sets out more clearly and more authoritatively than ever before the Administration's legal justifications for targeted killing, and the constraints that it operates under; it clarifies, and proposes improvements to, the procedures for independent oversight; and it disposes of a number of myths, including the suggestion that the US is entitled to regard all military-aged males as combatants, and therefore as legitimate targets. The publication of the procedural guidelines for the use of force in counter-terrorism operations is a significant step towards increased transparency and accountability.

But important questions remained unanswered.  On a close reading of the text of the speech and of the guidelines, some key questions remain obscure. Some information will of course always have to remain classified in the interests of national security, such as information that might put sources at risk or reveal intelligence methodology.

However, I am confident that more information about the drone program can safely be put into the public domain.  I will be engaging with the Administration over the coming months in an effort to further narrow the transparency gap. I very much hope that this engagement will bear fruit, and I will be reporting the results of the process in due course to the UN General Assembly.”

He also gave an interview to Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian:

The United Nations' drone investigator says he expects a "significant reduction" in the controversial strikes by the US in the next 18 months.

After meeting the CIA drector John Brennan and other high-ranking Obama administration officials this week, Ben Emmerson, the British lawyer currently serving as the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, told the Guardian it was his expectation that strikes would decrease substantially, although officials did not formally say so in their own words.

Emmerson also said he expected that most of the strikes would be carried out by the US military, rather than the CIA.

He would not be drawn into any detail about the discussions of his conversations with US officials about the controversial strikes – the subject of a wide-ranging investigation into President Obama’s so-called “targeted killing” efforts Emmerson launched in January.

But Emmerson told the Guardian that his firm impression after meeting Brennan, prominent White House national security aides and others, was that the administration will dramatically curb its drone strikes around the world in the coming months. Emmerson is currently conducting a wide-ranging investigation of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes and hopes to present a multilateral legal framework for drone strikes and other lethal counter-terrorism operations to the UN this autumn.

“Within a period of about 18 months, the majority of drone operations will be conducted by the military, rather than by any other branch of the government,” Emmerson said.

The CIA confirmed the meeting.