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U.S. memo outlines ‘lawfulness’ of drone strikes

National Yemen

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney

By: Jihan Anwar

“Legal, ethical and wise.”

This is how White House Press Secretary Jay Carney described the use drone strikes at a recent press conference after a memo on counterterrorism policies was made public.

As Yemenis continue to worry over their government’s ability and will to protect civilians from a rising number of drone strikes, U.S. citizens discovered that their own government ruled that it was legal to execute targeted killings of Americans.

In an undated white paper memo, it was explained that the summary execution of American citizens would be considered permissible provided that certain requirement were met.

Published by NBC News, the 16-page file was entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force” laid down three conditions for the guarantee of approval for such an operation:

“(1) an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,

(2) capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible;

and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One of the most notorious deaths of American citizens in a counterterrorism operation was that of Colorado-born Anwar Al-Awlaqi, a man with Yemeni origins who was placed on the by-now infamous ‘kill list’.

The targeted killing of his son, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaqi, sparked yet more controversy. Abdulrahman was a minor, an American citizen and no proof linking him with Al-Qaeda was issued either before or after his death by drone strike.

The kill list is strictly kept secret, and very few of the names on it are known either by members of the media or the general public. Its purpose is to list those individuals which US intelligence deems to be top threats who need to be ‘eliminated’.

Meanwhile, such ‘eliminations’ clearly strip individuals of their rights to receive a hearing in a U.S. court.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has reiterated what he perceived to be the benefits of the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and declared that the rate of drone strikes will not decrease.

A Pakistani general raised an interesting point when he wondered aloud how many people there were on the ‘kill list’, as while hundreds of people have already been killed, the number of drones strikes seems to be rising, not decreasing. Are those individuals on the kill list are killed, he asked, are they continuously replaced by others?

The memo emerged only after the United Nations announced that it would be launching independent investigations into legal issues connected to drone strikes. In June, Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s appointed Human Rights and Counterterrorism Officer, will present an investigative report on 25 cases in which drone strikes were believed to have caused civilian deaths.

In the report, drone strikes in Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia will be discussed.

While the announcement of the UN investigation was generally welcomed in Yemen, Sadek Hamid, a Yemeni lawyer, expressed skepticism about the ability of a legal ruling to curb or prevent the flying of unmanned vehicles in Yemen or elsewhere.

Emmerson has emphasized that more nations will consider the adoption of drone technology likely because such advanced technology comes at a relatively cheap price. While for over 10 years, America had a near-monopoly when it came to drones, other countries such as China and Israel are emerging as drone manufacturers. It has been reported that as many as 70 countries now possess some form of Remotely Controlled Vehicle.

Proving the complexity and multiple layers of issues that emerge as drone uses are considered, it has become clear that the U.N. doesn’t necessarily stand in direct opposition to the use of drones.

In fact, early this year, the United Nations peacekeeping department declared an intention to use drones in a mediation mission in Africa. The UV would be unarmed and mostly used for surveillance; yet if U.N. member nations found it necessary to do so, it would be seen as lawful to conduct drone strike operations against specific targets.

When drones are mentioned, the Middle East, war and poverty-stricken nations will tend to come to mind. However, in reality, drones of various sizes and varying purposes are already routinely used in the United States, with a ‘full integration’ of UAV already planned.

In the near future, a number of analysts predict, American police forces could very well be authorized to use drones to chase and target criminals on U.S. soil.