The U.N. and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently released a flurry of deeply flawed reports on drone murders. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur, whose day job is as law partner of Tony Blair’s wife, and according to two major human rights groups deeply embedded in U.S. exceptionalism, murdering people with drones is sometimes legal and sometimes not legal, but almost always it’s too hard to tell which is which, unless the White House rewrites the law in enough detail and makes its new legal regime public.
When I read these reports I was ignorant of the existence of a human rights organization called Alkarama, and of the fact that it had just released a report titled License to Kill: Why the American Drone War on Yemen Violates International Law. While Human Rights Watch looked at six drone murders in Yemen and found two of them illegal and four of them indeterminate, Alkarama looked in more detail and with better context at the whole campaign of drone war on Yemen, detailing 10 cases. As you may have guessed from the report’s title, this group finds the entire practice of murdering people with flying robots to be illegal.
Alkarama makes this finding, not out of ignorance of the endless intricacies deployed by the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Rather, Alkarama adopts the same dialect and considers the same scenarios: Is it legal if it’s a war, if it’s not a war? Is it discriminate, necessary, proportionate? Et cetera. But the conclusion is that the practice is illegal no matter which way you slice it.
This agrees with Pakistan’s courts, Yemen’s National Dialogue, Yemen’s Human Rights Ministry, statements by large numbers of well-known figures in Yemen, and the popular movement in Yemen protesting the slaughter. While the other “human rights” groups ask President Obama to please lay out what the law is, whether his killing spree is part of a war or not, who counts as a civilian and who doesn’t, etc., Alkarama actually compares U.S. actions with existing law and points out that the United States is violating the law and trying to radically alter the law. This conclusion results in a clear and useful set of recommendations at the end of the report, beginning with this recommendation to the U.S. government:
“End extrajudicial executions and the practice of targeted killings by drones and other military means.”
This recommendation is strengthened by a better informed and more honest report that much more usefully conveys the recent history of Yemen (including by noting honestly the destructive impact of the IMF and the USA), describes the indiscriminate terror inflicted by the buzzing drones, and contrasts drone murders to alternatives — such as negotiations. This analysis enriches our understanding of why drone wars are counterproductive even from the point of view of a heartless sociopath rooting for Team USA, much less someone concerned about human rights.
It is, then, possible to write a human rights report from a perspective concerned with the rights of humans, and not some combination of concern with human rights and devotion to U.S. imperialism. This is good news for anyone interested in giving it a try. The field is fairly wide open.
Some nations’ statements at the U.N. debate on drones this month, including Brazil’s, also challenged the legalization of a new form of war. And all of these groups and individuals have something to say about it as well.