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Il Fatto Quotidiano, Italy

Drone War and Targeted Killings Led
to 3 Million Victims in 10 Years


By Chantal Meloni

Under human rights law, a targeted killing in the sense of an intentional, premeditated and deliberate killing by law enforcement officials cannot be legal because, unlike in armed conflict, it is never permissible for killing to be the sole objective of an operation.

Translated By Hourya Herrou

29 November 2012

Edited by Tom Proctor


Italy - Il Fatto Quotidiano - Original Article (Italian)

There have been many articles lately, especially in the U.S., dealing with targeted killings.

The Washington Post made a long inquiry that the newspaper Internazionale used two weeks ago with the title “Obama’s Secret List.” The article describes how the American government secretly implemented what it calls the “disposition matrix,” “a system that will facilitate the monitoring, capturing and killing of suspected terrorists in every region of the world.” The system is based on the massive use of the remotely operated aircrafts called drones.

The Obama administration has intensified its use of this military strategy.

The Washington Post estimates that in the ten years since the first targeted killing led by a U.S. drone against suspected members of al-Qaeda in Yemen, drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have conducted more than four hundred operations. Nearly three thousand people have already been killed, including innocent civilians in “collateral damage,” who allegedly amount to hundreds of people.

In an article entitled “Killing as Much as You Like” from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the numbers were more precise, with an updated toll of 3,374 dead, including 885 civilians and 176 children. The U.N. Special Rapporteur announced the launch of an investigation for 2013, and a study of the Pew Research Center in 2012 has highlighted that the majority of the international public opinion disapproves of those attacks.

What is certain is that even in the U.S., the criticism of that strategy is increasing proportionally with the intensification of the attacks.

Besides, Obama is the first American president to have taken the personal responsibility to review the kill lists, validate them and authorize the attacks (except in Pakistan, where the director of the CIA is the one to decide where and when to conduct the attacks, according to what was reported). Recently, the Obama administration has been working hard to find legal grounds to justify such a strategy. Following 9/11, legal requirements were sought in the Congressional authorization for the use of military force for counter-terrorism purposes and the right of self-defense. Yet the strength of this justification falters because the objectives of the drones now go well beyond the al-Qaeda cells responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The prevailing position among legal experts is that the targeted killings conducted by drones are not legitimate in the light of international law. In particular, in the eye of the cyclone are the so-called “signature strikes,” attacks on a target whose identity is unknown but the operation is still authorized on the basis of some activity being revealed. In a recent article containing a meticulous analysis of the aforementioned elements, Kevin J. Heller from the University of Melbourne describes the fourteen different types of activity that appear sufficient for the White House to authorize a targeted killing of someone whose identity is unknown (a signature strike).

The different types include planning an attack, transporting weapons, using explosives and being in a training camp or al-Qaeda compound. Even being a “military-age” man in an area where terrorist activities are underway, being in the company of armed militants or traveling in a part of the Arabian Peninsula controlled by al-Qaeda is enough to become a “legitimate” target by drones.

According to the author, even if the recourse to targeted killings were legally justifiable in the form of “signature strikes” in some cases, the majority of the attacks wouldn’t be, regardless of whether they are identified as a terrorist/enemy. That position seems moderate compared with the study published by the University of Stanford last September, which concluded that international humanitarian law (the one applied in times of war) allows the use of intentional lethal force only when it is strictly necessary and proportionate. Therefore, the “targeted killings” as typically described (in the sense of intentional and premeditated killings) are not legal under international humanitarian law.

The other scenario is when it is not an operation of war but an act of “law enforcement” other than an armed conflict recognized as such (as the U.S.-led “war on terror” would be in the mind of many). The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in its Report of 2010 stated: "under human rights law, a targeted killing in the sense of an intentional, premeditated and deliberate killing by law enforcement officials cannot be legal because, unlike in armed conflict, it is never permissible for killing to be the sole objective of an operation.”

In the U.S., the first legal actions against targeted killings have already started. Unfortunately, this military strategy, first used by Israel against suspected Palestinian terrorists, already seemed completely illegal ten years ago. It is becoming increasingly popular while more victims are being slaughtered in remote areas that are difficult to access, even for the media. Therefore, besides the “suspected terrorists” who are deprived of their right of defend themselves, there are hundreds of innocents whose names we will never know.



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