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Investigate This

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
January 29, 2013
Foreign Policy


Last week's headlines alerted readers to the supposed revelation of the United Nations inquiry into U.S. drone strikes policies and practices: "UN to Investigate Drone Attacks;" "UN Expert Launches Investigation of Drones, Targeted Killings;" and "United Nations: That's It, We're Investigating Drone Killings." The stories covered an announcement by British human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, who serves as the "U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism" (say that three times fast).

To put this inquiry into context, most international institutions are mandated to investigate accusations of their member states' human rights abuses, most prominently the Organization of American States, European Union, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United Nations goes a step further -- as it includes nearly all states in the world -- with ten separate entities that monitor compliance with international human rights treaties. Emmerson is part of the U.N. Human Rights Council's special procedures that "examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations," either thematically or in specific countries. There are 36 thematic and 12 country mandates covering everything from transnational corporations and freedom of religion to Belarus and Iran.

Emmerson will "look at the evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of States to conduct thorough independent and impartial investigations into such allegations." Emmerson and an impressive "inquiry team" will examine 25 drone strikes in "Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Palestine," where attacks were carried out predominantly by the United States, but also by the United Kingdom (in Afghanistan) and Israel (in Palestine). The findings and recommendations of the investigation are scheduled to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly in October.

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