U.N. envoy slams U.S. for unanswered drone questions

UNITED NATIONS Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:33pm EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States must demonstrate that it is not randomly killing people in violation of international law through its use of unmanned drones on the Afghan border, a U.N. rights investigator said on Tuesday.

Philip Alston, a U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also said the U.S. refusal to respond to U.N. concerns that the use of pilotless drones might result in illegal executions was an "untenable" position.

Alston, who is appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, said his concern over drones, or predators, had grown in the past few months as the U.S. military prominently used the weapons in the rugged border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan where fighting against insurgents has been heavy.

"What we need is for the United States to be more up front and say, 'OK we're prepared to discuss some aspects of this program,'" the Australian law professor told reporters.

"Otherwise you have the really problematic bottom line, which is that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws," he said.

Critics say attacks using drones have resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths.

The killing of civilians, especially during operations by foreign forces, have infuriated Afghans and increased hostility toward the presence of international troops nearly eight years after the Taliban's fall in Afghanistan.

During a speech to the U.N. General Assembly earlier on Tuesday, Alston stepped up pressure for Washington to answer questions he first raised in June about the drones. He said the United States could well be using the drones legally, but the country needed to be more open about the program.

The United States told the Human Rights Council in June that it has an extensive legal framework to respond to unlawful killings. It also objected to Alston's criticism, saying the U.N. investigator did not have the mandate to cover military and intelligence.

Alston wants to know the legal basis on which the United States is operating the drones, precautions it is taking to ensure these weapons are used strictly for purposes consistent with international humanitarian law, and what mechanisms are in place to review the use of the weapons.

"The response of the United States is simply untenable," Alston said.

"And that (U.S. response) is that the Human Rights Council, and the General Assembly by definition, have no role in relation to killings that take place in relation to an armed conflict," he said. "That would remove a great majority of issues that come before (the United Nations) right now."