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UN EXPERT ON EXTRAJUDICIAL KILLINGS TELLS UNITED STATES WAR ON TERROR COULD UNDERMINE HUMAN RIGHTS ACCOUNTABILITY

28 March 2007

The Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions issued the following statement today:


“In recent years the United States has consistently argued that the UN Human Rights Council, and all other international human rights accountability mechanisms, have no legitimate role to play when individuals are intentionally killed, so long as it is claimed that the actions were part of the ‘war on terror’,” says Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “While this argument is convenient because it enables the US to effectively exempt itself from scrutiny, if accepted it would constitute a huge step backwards in the struggle to promote human rights. The argument would mean, for example, that the UN Human Rights Council would have no role to play in many of the most chronic situations of human rights violations around the world. All that would be needed is for the governments concerned to invoke the existence of an armed conflict in order to rid themselves of any human rights accountability.”
Alston’s concerns arose out of the US Government’s response to a letter he wrote on 26 August 2005, seeking an official response to information he had received that Haitham al-Yemeni had been killed on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in May 2005 by a missile fired by an un-manned aerial drone operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Rather than accusing the United States of violating any law, Alston had instead sought “clarification” of the facts and of the Government’s views on the legal issues involved.
The response of the US Government was unprecedented “because it took the opportunity to challenge the entire international human rights system.” The Government argued that international human rights law did not apply to the incident; that the laws that did apply could not be addressed by the Special Rapporteur or, implicitly, by the Human Rights Council; and that each State could determine for itself whether any particular incident could be addressed by the Council.
Alston responded with a thirteen page letter critiquing the Government’s position. “The incident involved was by no means the most alarming that I’ve dealt with this year, but the US government is a key player and its use of an argument with very far-reaching negative implications for the system as a whole is especially troubling.” says Alston.
“It is unacceptable to argue, as the US government has done, that if a government says that a particular killing involved an ‘enemy combatant’ and took place during an ‘armed conflict,’ then the United Nations must simply nod and look the other way,” according to Alston. “The appropriate response would have been to assert that a particular incident was a lawful killing of an ‘enemy combatant’ during an ‘armed conflict’ and then provide the relevant UN human rights mechanisms with the facts and evidence that demonstrates that position.”
The letter also noted that the proposed interpretation would overturn the policy established and consistently followed over the past quarter of a century since the Commission on Human Rights first established this mandate in 1982. In many of the relevant cases the United States was strongly supportive of the approach. “It is difficult to accept,” says Alston, “that the United States could for many years support a policy that resulted in the actions of other countries being scrutinized, but when they themselves are under scrutiny an entirely different legal framework is said to be needed.”
Alston presented his findings to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, March 27.
Background
Philip Alston was appointed as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on 13 July 2004. In 2006, the Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the Human Rights Council, and Alston now reports to the Council.
For further information on the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, see:
http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/executions/
http://www.extrajudicialexecutions.org/
The report that Alston presented to the Human Rights Council on March 27 is UN Doc. No. A/HRC/4/20, and communications with governments are included in A/HRC/4/20/Add.1.

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For use of information media; not an official record