The UN Special Rapporteur on on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, has produced a detailed study of the implications of the increasingly common policy of extrajudicial 'targetted' killings, particularly in relation to drone attacks in Pakistan.
Alston's last major report was on the US failure to protect human rights in Afghanistan and Iraq - or even, for that matter, in US gaols. You can read my summary of that June 2009 report here.
Defined as "the intentional, pre-meditated and deliberate use of lethal force, by States or their agents acting under colour of law, or by an organized armed group in armed conflict, against a specific individual who is not in the physical custody of the perpetrator", the US has used drones for targetted killings on an increasingly wide scale in recent years, while other countries have used less spectacular, but equally lethal methods.
The result, says Alston, has been "a highly problematic blurring and expansion of the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks – human rights law, the laws of war, and the law applicable to the use of inter-state force. Even where the laws of war are clearly applicable, there has been a tendency to expand who may permissibly be targeted and under what conditions."
He adds that the states concerned have often failed to specify the legal justification for their policies, to disclose the safeguards in place to ensure that targeted killings are in fact legal and accurate, or to provide accountability mechanisms for violations.
In addition, says Alston, and most troublingly, they have refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences. "The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum."
Alston is not solely concerned with US drone attacks. He gives other examples, including the killing of rebel Chechen warlord Omar ibn al Khattab in April 2002 by Russian armed forces, the November 2002 killed of Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harithi and five others in Yemen in a CIA Predator strike, killings in Sri Lanka between 2005-2008 by both the Tamil Tigers and government forces and the January 2010 operation to kill Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai, allegedly by Mossad agents.
The report notes, for example, that Israel has developed specific legal arguments to justify its targetted killing of Palestinians. One human rights group has revealed that between 2002-2008 at least 387 Palestinians were killed as a result of targetted killings by Israeli forces. Of these, 234 were the targets, while the remainder were 'collateral' casualties. It is hardly surprising that Israeli leaders should consider it 'reasonable' to send armed commandos against the Gaza flotilla and to allow them to open fire, when its rules governing such actions are so lax.
Alston concludes that states should publicly identify the laws they use to justify targetted killings and also why killing is better than capture. They should make public the number of civilians killed in targetted killing operations and adhere to a range of measures aimed at ensuring mistakes are investigated and that all measures to prevent them are in place.