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

Report
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:

  • disclose further legal and factual details about US policy and practices for so-called ‘targeted killings', 'signature strikes', and “Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes”;
  • end claims that the USA is authorized by international law to use lethal force anywhere in the world under the theory that it is involved in a “global war” against al-Qa'ida and other armed groups and individuals;
  • recognize the application of international human rights law to all US counter-terrorism operations including those outside US territory;
  • bring US policies and practices in line with the USA’s international human rights obligations, particularly, by:
  • ensuring that any use of lethal force outside of specific recognized zones of armed conflict complies fully with the USA’s obligations under international human rights law, including by limiting the use of force in accordance with law enforcement standards.
  • Ensuring that any use of lethal force within specific recognized zones of armed conflict complies fully with the USA’s obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, including by recognizing and respecting the rule that if there is doubt as to whether a person is a civilian, the person is to be considered a civilian.
  • Ensuring independent and impartial investigations in all cases of alleged extrajudicial executions or other unlawful killings, respect for the rights of family members of those killed, and effective redress and remedy where killings are found to have been unlawful.

Amnesty International calls on other states, and intergovernmental organizations including the United Nations, explicitly to reject and oppose as unlawful the current US policies and practices on the deliberate use of lethal force against terrorism suspects, and to urge the USA to take the measures outlined above.