WASHINGTON -- The United Nations opened a major new investigation on Thursday into the United States' use of drones and targeted assassinations.
The U.N. investigation, led by special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson, is expected to focus on the legal justification for America's expansive drone program, which has largely remained secretive and unexamined.
"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 a statement released by his office.
"It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law."
Human rights observers have long objected to the use of drones to target suspected terrorists because they often result in wider civilian deaths than administration officials have acknowledged.
But more practical concerns -- about the legality and efficacy of the program, as well as the White House's lack of transparency -- have also been growing.
The United States is by far the leading user of drones and unmanned vehicles for targeted assassinations, but it is not the only one. Drone use is expected to expand widely around the world -- China and Iran already are known to have the capability -- and there have been growing calls for the U.S. to clarify its own internal rules for the appropriate use of the technology.
In a recent conference call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations this week, Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, urged the administration to make more of its drone policies public.
"There's been far too little debate" about the tactic, Blair said in the call. "The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been waging a years-long effort to compel the Obama administration to release its internal legal considerations, welcomed the U.N. investigation, and urged the U.S. to participate in it.
“Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.’s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield," said Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement. "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program.”
Also on Thursday, the American Security Project released a new report examining the efficacy of drone strikes and raising questions about the strategy of using unmanned aerial vehicles for counterterrorism.
The report argues that the apparent tactical success of drones -- their ability to kill suspected terrorists without significant risk to American forces -- does not answer important questions about the strategic benefits of the program, or the broader strategic thinking behind it.