USA: ‘Targeted killing’ policies violate the right to life

June 15, 2012

USA: ‘Targeted killing’ policies violate the right to life

A series of speeches over the past two years by officials from the administration of President Barack Obama, and an article published in the New York Times on 29 May 2012, have revealed some details of the purported legal rationale for current policies and practices of the United States of America (USA) in the deliberate killing of terrorism suspects, including far from any recognized battlefield, and particularly through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (popularly known as drones). The picture slowly emerging gives grounds to conclude that US polices and practices are unlawful, violating the fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.

While some of the killings in question, if conducted in the context of specific armed conflicts, for instance in Afghanistan or at some times in some parts of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, may not violate international human rights or international humanitarian law, the policy appears also to permit extrajudicial executions in violation of international human rights law, virtually anywhere in the world. Among the particular concerns of Amnesty International are:

  • the administration's continued reliance on a "global war" legal theory that treats the entire world as a battlefield between the USA and armed groups, on which lethal force may apparently be used without regard to human rights standards;
  • the administration’s invocation of the right to use force in self-defence to justify the deliberate killing of virtually anyone suspected of involvement of any kind in relation to a range of armed groups and/or terrorism against the USA, particularly through the adoption of a radical re-interpretation of the concept of "imminence";
  • reports that a "guilty until proven innocent" approach is taken to military-age males who are killed by a strike, even if there is no specific evidence that they were directly participating in hostilities in a specific armed conflict;
  • the fact that key factual and legal details of the killing programme remain shrouded in secrecy.
  • These aspects of US policy and practice are not only of concern in their own right: they also weaken the credibility of the USA as an advocate for respect for human rights by other states; they set dangerous precedents that other states may exploit to avoid responsibility for their own unlawful killings; and if unchecked there is a real risk that the US “global war” doctrine will further corrode the foundations of the international framework for protection of human rights. There has also been widespread speculation that current US policies and practices with respect to such killings may inadvertently be building support for the very armed groups and terror attacks that US officials say provide its justification.

Amnesty International calls on all states to refrain from the unlawful use of lethal force, including against individuals suspected of terrorism, and to cooperate, bilaterally and through intergovernmental organizations, to ensure that those responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA, and for planning or carrying out attacks of a similar nature, are brought to justice for their crimes in fair and public trials without recourse to the death penalty.

Amnesty International calls on the US administration, Congress and the courts to: