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US boycotts UN human rights conference with drone resolution looming

Published time: March 20, 2014 02:33
Edited time: March 22, 2014 15:56
A protest against US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region, in Lahore (AFP Photo / Arif Ali)

A protest against US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region, in Lahore (AFP Photo / Arif Ali)

Pakistani leaders hope to convince the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution that would force US drone strikes to adhere to international law – a request that inspired the US to boycott the talks altogether, according to a new report.

The draft of a Pakistani resolution, first reported by Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy, proposes that nations “ensure transparency” when discussing drone strikes and “conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use.”

While official numbers are nonexistent, experts have suggested that anywhere from 200 to nearly 1,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed by US drone strikes, with as many as 200 children possibly among that total.

The issue of drone strikes, while remaining largely out of US headlines, has become one of the most polarizing in Pakistan. While previous reports have made it clear that Pakistani leaders have authorized at least some drone strikes, they publicly maintain that that unmanned American aerial vehicles constantly buzzing in the skies undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The proposal revealed Wednesday, which also calls for “an interactive panel discussion” on the use of drones, is a clear appeal from Pakistan to the international community.

The Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, entered its third day of discussing the resolution Wednesday, yet the US delegation was nowhere to be found.

A general view taken on the opening day of the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

The Obama administration first joined the council in 2009, ending a boycott initiated by the Bush administration, which was nervous about smaller nations trying to influence the body – particularly on matters relating to Israel.

Since then, though, the US has avoided a number of instances where authorities may have been forced to turn over information about its classified drone program.

Ben Emmerson, the UN’s current special rapporteur for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, told Foreign Policy that American intelligence leaders must at least give other world leaders a basic understanding of US drone use.

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.

Pressure from the international community seems to have worked, at least temporarily, as the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan has fallen over the past month. The Pakistani government asked the US to curtail drone activity as it tries to continue peace negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, according to The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller.

That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one US official said.

The president has made clear that even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks – through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners – America must move off a war footing,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said last month. “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”

Those self-imposed restrictions have done little to quash debate both at home and abroad. Last month, after the Obama administration said it would reduce the amount of attacks, it came under fire from Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who warned against such a decision.

Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by US counterterrorism operations for attacking for plotting to attack against US interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape,” he said during a congressional hearing, adding that the new rules endanger “the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas in a way that is frustrating to our allies and frustrating to those of us who engage in the oversight of our classified activities.”

Resolutions like the one proposed by Pakistan generally pass by consensus, although the US has asked that this proposal goes up for a vote when it is formally introduced next week.

This, like the rest of the Obama administration’s approach on this matter, is misguided, says Andrew Prasow, an American lawyer affiliated with Human Rights Watch.

This resolution would be the first time the council is going to do anything about drones and the US is not participating in any of the informal discussion about language,” he told foreign Policy. “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 the jurisdiction over this issue. I think it’s ludicrous to say the Human Rights Council doesn’t have anything to say about drone strikes.”