Top lawyer reveals findings of Report into legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq

17 October 2014

The legality of the United State’s use of drones to conduct ‘targeted killings’ was in question at an FLJS lecture held at Wolfson College earlier this week, as Rory O. Millson, the Chair of a New York City Bar Committee on International Law, revealed the key findings of their 18-month investigation into the issue.
Mr Millson, a Partner at Cravath, Swaine and Moore, opened his comments by assessing the policy decisions that lie behind the United State’s increasing reliance on drones to fight militants overseas. He argued that drones offered a politically expedient response to perceived terrorist threats in the wake of the huge political and economic costs of the Iraq War, which has seen the Obama administration reluctant to commit to the financial and political costs of putting ‘boots on the ground’ to fight foreign wars.
Mr Millson went on to describe the work of the Committee that he chaired to assess the legality of such policies under international law, demonstrating the complexity of any such legal assessment given the fact that the US is not subject to the general jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and not a party to the International Criminal Court.
Assessing the position of the United Nations with respect to a nation’s right to self-defence, Mr Millson said that, since 9/11, the UN Security Council defines this right to self-defence as applicable not only to actions by other hostile states, but also against individuals, or ‘non-state actors’ who are identified as posing a threat to national security. Such engagement in a so-called ‘non-international armed conflict’ is, however, subject to the consent of the countries in which drone strikes are being carried out, something which has been contested in the past.

Since 9/11, the UN Security Council defines the right to self-defence as applicable not only to actions by other hostile states, but also against ‘non-state actors’ who pose a threat to national security

Mr Millson cited the recent example of the Iraqi government’s consent to US air strikes against ISIL forces, as well as consent from Yemen for drone attacks conducted within its borders, as instances in which the US were legitimately authorized to conduct such actions. The case of Pakistan however, was far more complicated, since, despite public statements by the Pakistani government that it did not authorize the US to conduct drone strikes on its territory, documents exposed by Wikileaks reveal the contrary to be true, and that Pakistan is in fact, benefitting from the elimination of militants while distancing themselves from any culpability for the killings.
Mr Millson concluded by arguing that the lack of transparency and secrecy surrounding the US use of drones is both unwise from a policy perspective and troubling in terms of its implications both for public accountability and the legitimacy of such covert operations.
The report into the legality of targeted killings conducted by the New York City Bar Committee on International Law is available to download from the New York City Bar website, and a recording of Mr Millson’s lecture will be available to hear from our Podcasts page next week.
The exposure of US military secrets by Wikileaks will be the subject of our next event at Wolfson College on Tuesday 21st October, when we will be screening We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, with an introduction by Dr Jonathan Bright of the Oxford Internet Institute. To view a trailer and reserve your place, please visit the event webpage.
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