Just 10 days after a United States Senator issued a letter asking how the Obama administration determines it can legally target and kill American citizens, the United Nations has decided to investigate the legality of the entire drone program.
The investigation will be led by Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, and will look into targeted killings performed in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories.
Special emphasis will be placed on drone strikes, considering their use is involved in the majority of the targeted killings objected to by human rights activists as well as legal scholars.
"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," said Emmerson.
"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."
The launch of the investigation isn't much of a surprise considering that the U.N. and human rights groups, as well as U.S. officials, have questioned the widespread use of drones for a couple of years now. The Obama administration has typically stayed silent, claiming national security or self-defense as primary reasons for drone deployment.
Opponents of the program, however, claim that it is a breach of international law, and some have even said that U.S. pilots operating the machines could be tried for war crimes.
As previously mentioned, drones operate in a number of nations, though only Afghanistan is an internationally recognized warzone. Targeted drone strikes in other countries have spawned the allegation that the U.S. is flagrantly violating the sovereignty of nations like Pakistan, where the strikes are universally unpopular. Not only that, but civilian casualties are often reported, with drones sometimes striking the same spot a second time when rescue workers or civilians gather around the wreckage.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is one group that has attempted to force the Obama administration into transparency, but to no avail.
"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. "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government's ever-expanding targeted killing program."
There's no word on what type of cooperation the U.N. expects or will ask for from the United States, nor is there any indication that the U.S. will accommodate any such request.
The investigation's report is due in the fall of 2013.