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U.N. expert opens special investigation into drone warfare, targeted killings

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 8:26 p.m.

UNITED NATIONS — A U.N. expert on Thursday opened 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 United States 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, because 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 on 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.”

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Emmerson's announcement.

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 United States, cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

“We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the United States 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 increased in number under President 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.

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