The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions [official profile] continued to criticize US drone strikes on Thursday, saying that in some cases the attacks may constitute war crimes. In addressing the 20th Session [materials] of the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday, Christof Heyns said the drone strikes put innocent civilians at risk [UPI report] and set a dangerous international precedent. Heyns presented his report [text, PDF; JURIST report] to the council in Geneva on Tuesday, asking the US to clarify its policy of targeted killing of terrorism suspects through raids and unmanned drone strikes. He noted that the US government has failed in the past to provide a comprehensive explanation of its drone-attack policy, including a justification under international law, which generally requires that governments make an effort to arrest a suspect first. He also asked the US how it calculated the risk to civilians, noting that an estimated 20 percent of deaths from targeted killings in Pakistan were civilians. Later, Heyns told reporters outside the meeting that he did not believe [JURIST report] the US adequately addressed his key concerns. A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] also addressed the council [press release] in regards to US drone strikes, urging the UN to question the legal basis for the attacks.
The legality of drone strikes has been a controversial issue in recent months. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay declared on Friday that US drone strikes in Pakistan raise grave legal concerns [JURIST report] under international law. Pillay expressed particular concern that the drone strikes do not comport with the international law principles of proportionality and distinction. In October, JURIST contributing editor Jeffrey Addicott asserted [JURIST op-ed] that the CIA drone strike in September [JURIST report] that killed senior al Qaeda leader and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was legal under the law of war. Prior to the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki, the Obama administration issued a memorandum [JURIST report] justifying the legality of such an action. In August, JURIST guest columnist Laurie Blank argued [JURIST op-ed] that the US government's claim that drone strikes in Pakistan have caused zero civilian casualties belied serious concerns about American interpretation and adherence to the laws of war.