Lack of transparency in US drone killings muddies legal status, says UN

U.N. report says clandestine nature of U.S. drone strikes hinders evaluation of their impact on civilians

Women take part in a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan against U.S. drone strikes.
Mohammad Sajjad/AP

The United Nations has said that at least 450 civilians have likely been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

A U.N. report, obtained by Al Jazeera on Friday, stated that Pakistan’s government had confirmed more than 400 civilian deaths as a result of U.S. drone strikes and that at least 50 civilians were killed in strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen.

The U.S. provides little public information about drone deaths, but according to a New York Times exposé, the Obama administration considers “all military-age males (killed) in a strike zone” to be combatants “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” 

The classification is important. Critics argue that it undercounts the civilian death toll and that if a ‘militant’ killed, that implies the killing was lawful.

The report found that the major obstacle in obtaining accurate figures on civilian deaths was a lack of transparency by the countries involved. The U.S., according to the report, has an obligation to launch an impartial investigation and provide a public explanation because of its duty to protect civilians in armed conflicts.

So far, the U.S. has not released any casualty figures from its CIA-led drone program, but the spy agency says the totals were in single digits annually, according to media reports.

The report, to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 25, recommends that U.N. member states comply with international humanitarian law, and it identifies a number of legal questions on the use of drones that currently have no international consensus.


The report urged the U.S. to be more transparent with its information on the drone campaign.

“The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively,” wrote Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism and the author of the report.

The use of lethal force under the pretext of counterterrorism operations by the U.S. outside of areas of active hostilities, he said, “gives rise to a number of issues on which there is either no clear international consensus or United States policy appears to challenge established norms.”

White House spokeswoman Laura Magnuson told NBC News that the administration was aware of the new U.N. report and cited Obama’s speech in May in which he defended the use of drones and narrowed the scope of the targeted-killing campaign against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The Washington Post, citing documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, reported on Wednesday that the CIA-operated drone campaign relied heavily on the National Security Agency’s ability to intercept communications, leading to strikes targeting Al-Qaeda fighters abroad.

In June 2011, John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and current CIA chief, said that were no collateral deaths “because of the exceptional proficiency, precision or the capabilities we've been able to develop.”

In August, Secretary of State John Kerry told Pakistan’s state TV network that drone strikes in the country could end soon as the threat of insurgency recedes. Pakistani government records estimate that there have been at least 2,200 deaths in drone strikes since 2004.

Emmerson intends to submit a final report on his findings to the Human Rights Council in 2014.

Rahul Radhakrishnan contributed to this report.

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