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Terrorism & Security

US defends unmanned drone attacks after harsh UN report

UN special rapporteur Philip Alston on Wednesday called for a halt to US unmanned drone attacks, which he called a path to a 'Playstation' mentality towards killing.

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In his report (pdf) released Wednesday, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston criticized the secrecy of the CIA's drone attacks, writing they had resulted in "the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum." Remote attacks also led to a "risk of developing a 'Playstation' mentality to killing," he wrote.

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Alston urged US officials to "publicly identify the rules of international law they consider to provide a basis for any targeted killings they undertake" and to "specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture."

In an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview, Alston said the US was creating troubling precedents that might encourage other countries such as China to behave in the same fashion.

The Pakistani daily Dawn emphasized Alston's claim that drone attacks may violate international law:

Although not illegal as such, CIA drone strikes are more likely to breach the rules of war than similar operations carried out by armed forces, who are more familiar with international law and can resort to non-lethal means because they have troops on the ground, Alston said.

''Unlike a state's armed forces, its intelligence agents do not generally operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law, rendering violations more likely and causing a higher risk of prosecution both for war crimes and for violations of the laws of the state in which any killing occurs,'' he wrote.

But on Thursday, the Associated Press reported that US officials took issue with Alston's conclusions:

"Without discussing or confirming any specific action or program, this agency's operations unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight," said CIA spokesman George Little. "The accountability's real, and it would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise."

Administration officials have pointed to a carefully worded speech in March by State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, who said that "U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war." The Obama administration, he said, is committed to following the law in its operations against terrorists.

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