A U.N. expert on Thursday launched a special investigation into drone warfare and targeted killings, which the United States relies on as a front-line weapon in its global war against al-Qaida.
One of the three countries requesting the investigation was Pakistan, which officially opposes the use of U.S. drones on its territory as an infringement on its sovereignty but is believed to have tacitly approved some strikes in the past. Pakistani officials say the drone strikes kill many innocent civilians, which the U.S. has rejected.
The other two countries requesting the investigation were not named but were identified as two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That makes it clear the two countries are Russia and China, since the other permanent members are the United States and U.S. allies France and Britain.
The civilian killings and injuries that result from drone strikes on suspected terrorist cells will be part of the focus of the investigation by British lawyer Ben Emmerson, the U.N. rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.
The U.N. said Emmerson will present his findings to the U.N. General Assembly later this year.
"The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law," Emmerson said in announcing the probe Thursday in London.
Emmerson said countries that use drones have "an international law obligation to establish effective independent and impartial investigations into any drone attack in which it is plausibly alleged that civilian casualties were sustained."
An official with the U.S. mission to the U.N., speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We are aware of Special Rapporteur Emmerson's planned report. The United States government has publicly acknowledged that it conducts targeted strikes, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, against specific al-Qaida terrorists. As senior officials have said numerous times, including through speeches by Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan and State Legal Advisor Harold Koh, these strikes are conducted in full compliance with the law."
John Brennan, the anti-terrorism chief who has been nominated as the next CIA director, was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the highly secretive targeted killing operations, defending the legality of the overseas program and crediting it with protecting U.S. lives and preventing potential terror attacks. The CIA runs the drone program.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits against the United States over drone attacks that killed three U.S. civilians in Yemen in 2011, including an al-Qaida leader who had been born in the U.S., cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
"We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the U.S. back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.
Drone strikes have risen under President Barack Obama. According to the Long War Journal, which tracks such attacks, there were 35 strikes in Pakistan during 2008, the last year President George W. Bush was in office. That number grew to 117 in 2010, then fell to 64 in 2011 and 46 last year.
The program has killed a number of top militant commanders, including al-Qaida's then-No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who died in a drone strike in June.
The General Assembly could pass a resolution asking for monitoring or restrictions on drones, but it would be non-binding and the United States and other countries that use drones could ignore it. In the Security Council, which can issue legally binding resolutions, the United States has a veto and could block any attempt to restrict drone use.
A report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010 by Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, said that the United States, Israel and Russia were all credibly reported to have used drones to kill alleged terrorists and insurgents. Recently, Iran has also announced it is building drones.
Alston at the time called on countries to lay out rules and safeguards for carrying out the strikes, publish figures on civilian casualties and prove they have attempted to capture or incapacitate suspects without killing them. None of those precautions have been adopted.
Alston, a New York University professor, later wrote in an academic paper published in 2011 saying that the CIA drone program lacked oversight.
"The CIA's internal control mechanisms, including its Inspector-General, have had no discernible impact; executive control mechanisms have either not been activated at all or have ignored the issue; congressional oversight has given a 'free pass' to the CIA in this area; judicial review has been effectively precluded; and external oversight has been reduced to media coverage which is all too often dependent on information leaked by the CIA itself," he wrote. "As a result, there is no meaningful domestic accountability for a burgeoning program of international killing."