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March 20, 2014

U.S. Needs to Participate in U.N. Drone Discussions

This week, Foreign Policy reported that the United States will be sitting out a United Nations Human Rights Council discussion of a Pakistani resolution to examine the legality of U.S. drone strikes. The United States should actively participate in the Council’s discussions, and be more transparent about the legal justifications and results of its drone strikes, both for the sake of abiding by international law and ensuring essential counterterrorism cooperation from other countries.

The United States has stayed mostly mum about its targeted killing policies and their legal underpinnings amid calls for transparency from a coalition of nine human rights organizations including Human Rights First,  Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These calls came following reports of U.S. strikes in Yemen and Pakistan alleged to violate international law. The Obama Administration has so far refused to release the full Presidential Policy Guidance document and Office of Legal Counsel memos that seek to legally justify the administration’s targeting policies.

These strikes have occurred mostly in Pakistan and Yemen, where investigators have alleged that they have resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. The United States has also not acknowledged its part in the vast majority of drone strikes (with the exception of three in Yemen), and has not addressed the allegations of civilian deaths other than to say that precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and if those casualties occur, an investigation is done. The public has not had access to any information about who is targeted (except the three Yemen strikes), or the results of any investigations into civilian casualties.

U.S. civil and military leadership has acknowledged the importance of counterterrorism cooperation with other nations. When partners can understand how and why the U.S. does what it does, the country has better working relationships with other nations. The lack of transparency on targeted killing has hurt and continues to hurt those essential relationships, making nations more reluctant to participate with the U.S. in national security matters. Ultimately, this puts the U.S. in more danger and less able to counter threats.

The American public and the world need to see the Policy Guidance and Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying these strikes. They also need to know who is being targeted and who is actually dying. The United States should not shun the U.N. Human Rights Council discussion, but rather participate fully, and be as transparent as possible about its targeted killing operations and policy.