Statement of U.N. Special Rapporteur on U.S. Targeted Killings Without Due Process

Document Date: August 3, 2010

Statement of Professor Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, NYU School of Law, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions (2004-2010), and author of a report on targeted killings submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2010:

The United States’ assertion of an ever-expanding but ill-defined license to commit targeted killings against individuals around the globe, without accountability, does grave damage to the international legal frameworks designed to protect the right to life. Targeted killing — defined as the intentional, premeditated, and deliberate use of lethal force, by a state or its agents acting under color of law, against a specific individual who is not in the perpetrator’s custody — is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Targeted killing is usually legal only in armed conflict situations when used against combatants or fighters, or civilians who directly engage in combat-like activities, and international law requires that any state that uses targeted killing must demonstrate that its actions comply with the laws of war.

To comply with its accountability obligations, the United States should disclose when and where it has authorized its forces, including the Central Intelligence Agency, to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how the U.S. Government ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed. Disclosure of these basic legal determinations is the very essence of accountability, but the United States has so far failed to meet this requirement. Instead, it has claimed a broad and novel theory that there is a ‘law of 9/11’ that enables it to legally use force in the territory of other States as part of its inherent right to self-defence on the basis that it is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and undefined ‘associated forces’. This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defence threatens to destroy the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter, which is essential to the international rule of law. If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos. The serious challenges posed by terrorism are undeniable, but the fact that enemies do not play by the rules does not mean that the U.S. Government can unilaterally re-interpret them or cast them aside. The credibility of the U.S. Government’s claim that it has turned the page on previous wrongdoing and seeks to uphold the rule of law in its actions against alleged ‘terrorists’ is called into question by its targeted killing policy.

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