UNHRC Drone-strike Investigator: Israel Would Be Wise to Cooperate

British lawyer Ben Emmerson promises his report on the use of drone strikes will be fair and says it is in Israel's strategic interest to cooperate.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – A British lawyer investigating the use of drone strikes for the United Nations called on Israel to cooperate.

Ben Emmerson, who serves as the UN Human Rights Council's special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, is tasked by the council with delivering a report on drone strikes in which civilians have been killed. His team is already analyzing a list of such strikes. Most of the strikes on the list were carried out by United States-operated drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but some involved British drones in Afghanistan and Israeli drones in the Gaza Strip. International media organizations have reported that the Israeli Air Force has used armed drones to carry out "targeted killing" operations over Gaza, but Israel has never acknowledged that it uses the weapons. There are concerns in the three nations being investigated that Emmerson's investigation could label some of the ways they use drones as war crimes.

In an interview with Haaretz, Emmerson acknowledged the fact that "Israel is currently in an uncomfortable relationship of standoff with the human rights council." Israel recently refused to send its diplomats to the periodic review by the council of its human rights record and regards the Geneva-based body as instinctively hostile to Israel. No official policy has yet been published, but it is widely assumed that Israel will not cooperate with the investigation, in the same way it refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza four years ago. Emmerson, though, emphasized that "this is not an enquiry that in any way singles out Israel but rather one that looks at the issues arising from the use of a new technology."

According to Emmerson, the need for an inquiry specifically into drone strikes arises from the fact that "this is a proliferating weapon about which there is no consensus judging the legal framework on whether and whenever it is legal to use it. There is no consensus between international lawyers and part of the process is bringing the parties to the table so they can reach some kind of framework." The use of drones by the U.S. has dramatically increased under the Obama administration, particularly against Al-Qaida targets in Pakistan and Yemen, and with it, widespread international criticism of the growing numbers of civilian casualties from these strikes.

Emmerson described drones as "a technology that is racing ahead of international law, operating in a legal vacuum." In the case of the U.S., he said, "the American global war paradigm is a legal invention not recognized anywhere else in the world. International law is an agreement between nations on how to behave." Yet he insisted that he is not about to conduct "a hostile enquiry with the object of signaling out specific states" and said he has already received unofficial assurances from the U.S. and Britain that their governments will cooperate with his investigation.

Despite some governments' calls for the elimination of armed drones from the battlefield, Emmerson said realistically such weapons "are not likely to be banned, these things are here to stay" and claimed be "genuinely open minded" to the arguments in favor of using them. "There is a perfectly good argument to be made that if the alternative is the deployment of ground troops in an area which has significant civilian population, the consequences would be much more cataclysmic," he said. "There is a different argument that if your target is a small group embedded among civilians, then attacks from the air can cause larger casualties."

Emmerson has a long record of work on human-rights cases, but he has yet to work on a case related to Israel and said it would be "very wrong to claim that any investigation carrying my name has a scintilla of bias." He has yet to formally approach the Israeli government on the issue.

"This technology is being used by three democracies and there needs to be a public debate" he said. "It would be extremely helpful if Israel cooperated and it would be remiss of me to ignore Israel in an investigation of technology used by three states, one of which is Israel." Emmerson said cooperation is in Israel's interests, since he believes the second Obama administration is now planning "to publicly engage with the debate surrounding this inquiry and in the international process. It would not be in Israel's interest to have no part in interstate negotiations about the use of this technology. It is in Israel's strategic interest for its voice to be heard in this process and it would be unfortunate if the only state against this was Israel."

Emmerson promised he is "aimed at ensuring Israel has a fair opportunity to explain its case" and that even if it does not respond, he will investigate Israeli use of drones. He has no powers to compel nations to cooperate. "All I can do is name and shame them to the U.N. General Assembly for non-cooperation," he said.

Emmerson denied the charge that his investigation is motivated by U.N. members who are trying to limit American operations against terror, despite the fact that Russian and China were among those requesting the inquiry. According to him, over 50 nations currently operate military drones that are capable of being weaponized, and "some of them are reported be to working on weaponizing drones." Just this week, a senior Chinese security official said his country already operates armed drones and considered using one of them to kill a drug-lord who is allegedly behind the murders of thirteen Chinese sailors.

Emmerson said he will also look into claims that Iran and Hezbollah are working together on strike drones, though he said they are "speculative." He said one of the main concerns is the legal ramifications of such drones being used by organizations such as al-Qaida, saying, "If Al-Qaida used drones against America, then given the U.S. interpretation that it is at war with Al-Qaida and in war you kill people, it will be hard for them to say that this is terror."

The Israeli-made Eitan drone.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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