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Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch label drone strikes as indiscriminate but don’t go as far as to label them as war crimes

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Ratner Report.

Now joining us is Michael Ratner. He is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for being with us, Michael.

MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Nice to be with you, Jessica, and The Real News, of course.

DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, what are you working on this week?

RATNER: Well, this week I’m focusing on a lot of things, everything from WikiLeaks to drones.

I’d like to talk about drones for a minute, because there were two important reports issued this week about drones, particularly drones used in Yemen and in Afghanistan. In Yemen, Human Rights Watch issued an important and compelling report on drones and the killings that have happened because of drones. Likewise, Amnesty International did one on Pakistan–Pakistan, which has a lot more drone attacks than Yemen.

Drone attacks have been going on for a very long time. There was a big increase of drone attacks under Obama. There apparently is some decrease now, but in my view they’re still being used in a completely lawless way.

Both reports, which did receive some coverage, or actually a fair amount of coverage, in a way, are extremely painful reading. They talk about the number of civilians killed. Amnesty International estimates that up to 900 civilians have been killed in Pakistan over the last seven or eight years. They gave some recent examples: twelve laborers in a field who had been laboring go in inside to eat, killed; a 68-year-old woman and an eight-year-old, I guess, granddaughter blasted to death by drones in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch, while it had fewer cases because it was following Yemen, likewise demonstrated that civilians were being killed, and in its view some civilians have been killed in an indiscriminate fashion or that were not legitimate, quote, military objects.

I had some problems with both reports, which I’ll talk about, because my view is that any of these attacks are completely illegal. It’s not about who they’re targeting or whether it’s a civilian or whether it’s a so-called combatant. It’s incredible to me that they’re being used at all. But even within the context of those reports, they’re very powerful statements.

What I can’t understand is that people should be screaming in this country about the use of drones.

Certainly, the areas that Human Rights Watch and AI looked at, particularly, I think, in Pakistan (and there’s been some recent articles on it), is that people are living in fear for their lives all the time in these areas. Drones are going over their heads spying on them, and then, of course, at any moment–you’re in a field, you’re in the restaurant, you’re in your own home–you can be killed, killed by a drone.

In the last short while, a former U.S. State Department official named Nabeel Khoury wrote an article in The Cairo Review saying that these drones are killing large numbers of innocent civilians, and that each drone attack in Yemen, each one, he believes, makes 40 to 60 new enemies of the United States. That’s in a–that’s by a former State Department official saying that.

But despite this and despite Obama’s promise in May that he would have new guidelines limiting the drone attacks in a way that made more sense from a legal point of view, or at least would comply, arguably, with the law in a little better way, despite that, no new guidelines have been issued that limit these attacks. So they’re still going on in a very, very lawless way.

My office, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a few years ago, when this was not even the issue it is today, brought a case to stop the killing in Yemen of a man named Anwar al-Awlaki. We brought that case. Unfortunately, the judge refused to ban the killing of that man. He was killed in Yemen by a drone.

And two weeks later, for no reason at all that we can imagine and none that has been explained, that man’s 16-year-old son, a beautiful young man, as you can see in pictures and movies, particularly Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, was killed by a drone attack. U.S. has never tried to justify particularly that attack against the 16-year-old.

These drone attacks that have been going on now 12 years after 9/11 should raise serious question for everybody in the world, particularly, of course, for us here in America who are carrying them out.

And the question I have and the one I’ll close with is: how is the U.S. president believe that he has the authority, from some military base sitting–whether it’s in New York or Nevada, to have someone at a computer decide by punching a button that they’re going to send out a drone and kill someone, presumably anywhere in the world? That’s–the president believes he has that authority, and he’s been using it.

And the first question is: is there domestic authority for doing so? I don’t think so. I think it’s a stretch. The claim is the authorization to use military force, which was passed in the wake of 9/11, and particularly around Afghanistan. I don’t think there’s any authority left in the AUMF, which was meant to get the people involved in 9/11 and their fellow conspirators; there’s nothing left of it after 11 or 12 years, nothing left of that authority. It’s still being used all over the world. But I don’t care what the U.S. domestic authority is. I don’t think there’s an argument. There is none.

But in any case, whether there is or isn’t, you have to comply with international law. There’s two forms of it. There’s the Geneva Convention, the laws of war; and then there’s international human rights law. U.S. has obligations under both of those sets of laws. We’ve signed the treaties.

Let’s just look at Yemen for a second. In Yemen there is really no war, certainly not a war against the United States. There may be an internal civil war, but that doesn’t give the U.S. the authority to use the laws of war to kill somebody in Yemen. So there’s no authority under the laws of war. Under human rights law, there are very exceptional cases when you can actually, perhaps, if you can’t capture a person, kill them. But those circumstances are very narrow–the case we had in al-Awlaki, where we said what those circumstances were, that it has to be a specific plot against the United States, it has to be concrete, and it has to be imminent. In other words, it has to fit self-defense. And even then, you have to use lesser means, which is to say, ask Yemen to arrest him, work with Yemen to arrest him, not kill him. Specific, concrete, and imminent. None of the cases put forward, as far as we know, so far have met that standard in Yemen.

Likewise in Pakistan. Pakistan in my view is not a war zone. Yes, parts of Afghanistan may be; not Pakistan. So the same rule is they can’t use the laws of war. And secondly, if they can’t use the laws of war or the rules of war, they have to use the same rule I talked about, which is it has to be specific, concrete, and imminent. None of that, none of that applies.

My conclusion is, which is a more–I guess, a more hard-hitting or broader conclusion then the AI report or the HRW report, is that these drone attacks are absolutely 100 percent illegal in the fashion they’re being used. They should not be used–being used at all, not just because they’re illegal, but because they’re counterproductive. And the best thing they do is really say to you that the U.S. believes that it is the global cop and can kill at its will anywhere in the world. And that should not be allowed or permitted. And hopefully these two reports and other arguments, from my office and others and from people in the world, are saying, let’s stop this, let’s get rid of it, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, and it’s counterproductive.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Michael Ratner, it’s always a pleasure hearing your take. Thank you for joining us.

RATNER: Thank you for having me again on The Real News.

DESVARIEUX: And, of course, thank you at home for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.