The Cable

Exclusive: U.S. Boycotts U.N. Drone Talks

(This article has been updated)

Pakistan is trying to push a resolution through the United Nations Human Rights Council that would trigger greater scrutiny of whether U.S. drone strikes violate international human rights law. Washington, though, doesn't want to talk about it.

The Pakistani draft, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, urges states to "ensure transparency" in record-keeping on drone strikes and to "conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use." It also calls for the convening of "an interactive panel discussion" on the use of drones.

The Geneva-based human rights council held its third round of discussions about the draft on Wednesday, but the Obama administration boycotted the talks.

The White House decision to sit out the negotiations is a departure from the collaborative approach the administration promised to take when it first announced plans to join the Human Rights Council in March 2009.

The Bush administration had refused to join the body out of concern that repressive states might exercise undue influence over the council and that it would focus disproportionate attention on Israel. The Obama administration, by contrast, argued it was better to reshape an imperfect organization from within than to complain about its failings from afar.

"Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement at the time. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system.... We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies."

Rhetoric aside, though, the Obama administration has largely refused to supply U.N. experts with details about the classified U.S. drone program, which has killed hundreds of suspected militants in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries over the past decade. Independent investigators say the strikes have also killed thousands of civilians, including large numbers of women and children, a charge the White House -- without providing evidence to the contrary -- denies.

Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s current special rapporteur for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has urged the United States to provide more basic information on the U.S. program, including its own list of civilian casualties. "The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively," he said.

Those demands are nothing new. Micah Zenko, an FP columnist and expert on drones at the Council on Foreign Relations, recalled in a recent piece that U.N. human rights investigators have been raising concerns about the U.S. targeted killing program since Nov. 15, 2002, just 12 days after the first confirmed American strike.

Asma Jahangir, then the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, asked the United States and Yemen for information the Nov. 3, 2002, missile strike, which killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen. She also expressed concern that "an alarming precedent might have been set for extrajudicial execution by consent of government." The United States declined to comment on the specific allegations, but it challenged any suggestion that "military operations against enemy combatants could be regarded as 'extrajudicial executions by consent of governments.'"

It remains unclear what Washington will do when the Pakistani resolution is put forward for consideration next week.

Most resolutions in the Human Rights Council are adopted by consensus, but the United States has the option of forcing a vote on the resolution.But a State Department official made it clear that the United States would not support the resolution. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that the United States has in the past "regularly participated in negotiations on resolutions dealing with the need to protect human rights while countering terrorism. But this particular resolution deals solely with the use of remotely piloted aircraft."

"We just don’t see the Human Rights Council as the right forum for discussion narrowly focused on a single weapons delivery system," the official said in prepared remarks. "That has not been a traditional focus area for the HRC [Human Rights Council], in part for reasons of expertise. We do not see how refinements to the text can address this core concern. We know that others may have a different perspective, and of course we respect their right to do so."

"It is incorrect that we are unwilling to deal with important counterterrorism issues at the HRC and with its mandate holders," the official added. "We have met with UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism at senior levels when he traveled to Washington."

Speaking last week at a U.N. review of the U.S. human rights record, a top State Department lawyer, Mary McLeod, said that Washington's use of armed drones complies with international law and stressed that Washington goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Russia, which is facing international condemnation for its annexation of Crimea, used the body's most recent meeting to argue that a provision raising concern about the prospects for civilian casualties from drone attacks wasn't strong enough. The current provision, Russia's delegate noted, "doesn't reflect the seriousness of situation with remotely piloted aircraft," according to notes from the meeting.

Andrea Prasow, an American lawyer who tracks national security issues for Human Rights Watch, said the United States was passing up a golden opportunity to influence the U.N. debate on drones. 

"This resolution would be the first time the council is going to do anything about drones and the U.S. is not participating in any of the informal discussion about language, " she said. "They are telling us they are reserving judgment on the resolution, which means they won't be happy with it. We have also heard from them and others as well they are concerned that the council doesn't have jurisdiction over this issue. I think it's ludicrous to say the Human Rights Council doesn't have anything to say about drone strikes."

Questions about the legality and morality of drone strikes have bedeviled the administration for years. Last May, President Barack Obama announced in a speech before the National Defense University that he would curtail the use of drones and other controversial practices associated with the U.S.-led war on terrorism. And there have been no reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan for months.

Still, the classified guidelines outlining the new policy call for transferring control over drone strikes to the military have never been implemented. Earlier this year, the White House reportedly debated whether to launch a drone strike against a Pakistan-based American citizen suspected of plotting a terror attack against the United States. Had he been killed, the unnamed man would have been the fifth U.S. citizen killed by an American drone during Obama's presidency.

Mahammed Huwais/ AFP/ Getty Images

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NATO Chief Says "Our Concern Is that Russia Won't Stop"

This story has been updated. 

NATO's top official acknowledged in an interview that Russia's annexation of Crimea had "established certain facts on the ground" that would be difficult to change and said the military alliance was increasingly concerned that Moscow might also invade eastern Ukraine.

In the interview, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Foreign Policy that Russia's sudden conquest of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was a "wake-up call" for the 28-member alliance, which had been established to counter potential Soviet aggression during the Cold War. Rasmussen said NATO was committed to protecting Poland and other Baltic members of the alliance from what he described as an increasingly aggressive and land-hungry Russian government.

Ukraine's fragile central government has announced plans to withdraw all of its remaining troops from Crimea, a clear indication that Kiev has come to reluctantly accept that it can do nothing to halt or reverse the region's absorption into Russia. NATO, Rasmussen said, was now worried that Russia was turning its gaze further eastward and potentially preparing to seize other portions of Ukraine.

"Our concern is that Russia won't stop here," Rasmussen said. "There is a clear risk that Russia will go beyond Crimea and the next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine."

A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, he added, "would have severe consequences." He declined to say what those might include, though, and stressed that NATO hadn't begun discussing any military options and wanted to de-escalate tensions with Russia rather than continuing down a path that could lead to an armed confrontation with Moscow.

Rasmussen's remarks come during at an unsettling time for the United States, Britain, and NATO's other 26 members. It was just weeks ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcoming tens of thousands of tourists to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Today, Putin is at the center of a tense showdown with President Obama that has plunged U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest levels in decades.

"More or less we took for granted that the Cold War belonged to the past," Rasmussen said. "And while I'm not yet ready to call recent incidents a new Cold War, there are of course similarities that remind us of old-fashioned Cold War attitudes on the Russian side, and that is a matter of concern."

Russia's invasion of Crimea has also focused new attention on NATO itself. Senior officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations have privately questioned its relevance in recent years and blasted the alliance's European members for slashing defense spending and effectively turning the continent's security over to the United States. European NATO members, in turn, have worried aloud that Obama's stated goal of reducing U.S. defense spending and focusing more attention on Asia meant that the administration was not as firmly committed to the alliance as its predecessors had been.

Rasmussen said he was working to reassure Poland and other nervous Baltic members of the alliance, who share borders with Russia and wonder if they will be Putin's next targets. The NATO chief said the alliance was committed to the defense of all of its members and would take strong, though unspecified, steps to protect the countries in the event of a Russian invasion. The Pentagon recently announced plans to move a dozen F-16s to Poland, and two NATO surveillance planes have begun flying over Poland and Romania to help the two countries better monitor their airspace and borders. Many Poles, though, say that the West isn't doing remotely enough to deter Putin.

The NATO chief acknowledged that the current crisis was NATO's biggest challenge in decades and cut to the heart of why the alliance had been created in the first place. Rasmussen said that he hoped it would lead European countries to sharply boost their defense spending, which he said had fallen to levels so low that they threatened the alliance's future effectiveness.

"This is a wake-up call and also a wake-up call when it comes to defense spending," he said in the interview, noting that some European countries had slashed their spending by up to 40 percent. "If this trend continues, European allies will not be able to provide effective deterrence and collective defense. This trend must be reversed."

Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark, said the current crisis was "surreal" for him on a personal level.

"I grew up in the shadow of the wall and the Iron Curtain, and in a way I couldn't believe that it could be changed," he said. "Then suddenly, almost overnight, everything changed."

Now, he warned, things were at risk of changing again, this time for the worse.

"It is a Russian attempt to redraw the map and I would call it a kind of Russian revisionism which is unacceptable," he said. "It's not an acceptable behavior in the 21st century."

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