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U.S. Should Set Legal Limits on Drone Warfare, Report from Human Rights Clinic Urges

Report by Students Studying Counterterrorism and Human Rights Call on U.S. to Lead Efforts to Restrict Use of Drones

Public Affairs, 212-854-2650

New York, April 27, 2011—Experts are calling for greater transparency from the Obama administration on its use of armed drones, noting that foreign governments are likely to follow the lead of the U.S.—or be emboldened by its failure to clarify legal limits.

As the technology has become more prevalent, six students in the Counterterrorism & Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic undertook a report on legal gaps in the Administration’s statements about drones.

“Since 2008, under the Obama administration, the use of drones has significantly increased, making drones an integral part of robotic warfare,” said Adriana Garcia ’12, one of the report’s authors.

The other authors were: Djemila Carron LL.M ’11, Rashmi Chopra ’12, Janine Morna ’12, Alyssa Scott ’11, and Anil Vassanji ’12.

The report was discussed with students and others members of the Law School community at a recent event on campus. Key findings include:

  • With the scope of the conflict against Al Qaeda and associates undefined, the U.S. could potentially conduct drone strikes anywhere in the world.  
  • Reports put the percentage of civilians killed by strikes at anywhere between 5 percent and 90 percent. “That is an alarming rate and this range in data is a clear reflection of the problems with defining and distinguishing civilians from non-civilians and also the difficulty of collecting data on the ground,” Garcia said.
  • Drone strikes conducted by non-military personnel, including the CIA and private contractors, raise questions about adherence to humanitarian law. “The administration’s failure to disclose the CIA’s status and structures undercuts it message of transparency and adherence to the rule of law,” Chopra said.
  • The U.S. should take the lead defining the limits of drones. “A failure to articulate specific legal constraints could, in the near-future, be cited by less law-abiding governments or groups as justification for evading accountability,” Vassanji said.

“Lawyers from the U.N., human rights groups, and the military agree that drones may be the future of warfare,” said Naureen Shah ’07, counsel on counterterrorism and human rights at the Law School’s Human Rights Institute who supervised the students. “But the laws of war still apply. The U.S. must take the lead in acknowledging the humanitarian costs of drones, and clarifying the legal limits on how this technology can be used.”

The report had initially been presented in March at the annual meeting of the American Society for International Law (ASIL) in Washington. The session, co-sponsored by ASIL’s Lieber Society and Human Rights Interest Group, was broadcast on C-SPAN and can be viewed here. It featured discussion among leading advocates and practitioners, including Lt. Col. Chris Jenks, U.S. Army, and Nils Melzer, legal adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

Rashmi Chopra ’12 presents report at annual ASIL meeting in March before panel of experts, including Naureen Shah ’07, (seated, left) who supervised the students’ research.

The conference is the preeminent gathering of international lawyers and scholars. At last year’s keynote address, Harold Koh, legal adviser at the State Department, for the first time provided legal justification for the Obama administration’s use of drones in targeted killings.

The full text of the clinic’s report, “Targeting Operations with Drone Technology: Humanitarian Law Implications” can be read here. The Law School’s Human Rights Institute serves as the focal point of international human rights education, scholarship and practice. It currently focuses on a number of key themes: fostering international human rights norms and strategies at 'home' in the United States; ensuring human rights compliance in the 'war on terror;' strengthening the Inter-American system of human rights; and promoting ‘economic justice’ around the world.

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