Micah Zenko is betting that the latest UN investigation into drone killings by the United States “is unlikely to compel increased transparency from the Obama administration.” Essentially, this is because similar investigations have been going on for about ten years and the Bush and Obama administrations have had the same response to them: “Screw off.”
After the first targeted assassination by drone killed six al-Qaeda suspects in November 2002 in Yemen, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, demanded some answers and indicated this probably violated international law. Jahangir wrote:
The Special Rapporteur is extremely concerned that should the information received be accurate, an alarming precedent might have been set for extrajudicial execution by consent of Government. The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against the excesses of non-State actors or other authorities, but these actions must be taken in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. In the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the attack in Yemen constitutes a clear case of extrajudicial killing.
The Bush administration’s response, as Zenko documents, was to have “no comment” on the validity of the reports and to say that humanitarian laws wouldn’t apply to “enemy combatants.” This was of course characteristic of the post-9/11 view that the entire world was a limitless battlefield where the US was unrestrained in what it could do because it was all in self-defense against imminent terrorist attacks. Right.
And when UN special rapporteurs made similar inquiries into Obama’s drone attacks, they were similarly stiff armed. And the Obama administration made the same argument as Bush: these attacks were in self-defense of imminent terrorist attacks and it doesn’t matter that they occurred outside of an official battlefield because the world is our battlefield.
Two things are important to point out here. First of all, the notion that every one of Obama’s 400-plus drone strikes was in self-defense of an imminent terrorist attack is asinine. We know from reporting about the administration’s use of “signature strikes,” that bombs are dropped on people that the US cannot even identify, but who have supposedly demonstrated a “pattern of behavior” that suggests they might be a member of a terrorist organization. The very use of signature strikes appears to obliterate the argument that the drones are disrupting “imminent” attacks.
Obama has twisted the meaning of “imminence” in order to claim the drone war fits within international law. As Secrecy News explained while describing a legal memo scrutinizing the rationale in support of drone strikes:
For example, [Congressional Research Service] says the Administration appears to have redefined the meaning of “imminence,” one of the required elements for justifying the use of force in self-defense on the territory of another country. The standard definition of imminence refers to an overwhelming threat that allows “no moment for deliberation.” But the Administration uses imminence idiosyncratically “to refer to the window of opportunity for striking rather than the perceived immediacy of the threat of an armed attack.” This novel usage “may pose some challenge to the international law regarding the use of force,” CRS said.
The use of force in the drone war is patently illegal without the the justification of self-defense from imminent attacks. Redefining the word is a sly way of being a criminal without admitting it.
The second thing that is important when considering the Obama administration’s defense of its drone war is the issue of secrecy. If the administration is so confident that the drone war is being carried out legally, why continue to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of specific strikes? Why has Obama kept the official legal rationale for the drone war secret, not just from the American people or the UN, but from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to provide oversight of such policies?
If one thing has been clear throughout history and certainly in Obama’s first term as President, it’s that people in government keep things secret to protect themselves from public and legal scrutiny, not for their stated reasons of “protecting national security.”
So while the ramped up investigation at the UN is a good sign, all indications are that the Obama administration will, once again, thwart any attempt to impose legal scrutiny, transparency, and accountability to his drone war.