UN Special Rapportuer for Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson spoke with Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh about his study of US drone policy, focused primarily on our operations in Pakistan (podcast available from Lawfare: see episode 31). I have expressed some skepticism of his objectivity in past posts (here and here), but also some optimism (here). Having just listened to Emmerson’s 40 minute discussion, I now have a great deal of respect for the man’s commitment to objectivity.
In the discussion Emmerson admits to having initially approached the subject from not only a human rights perspective, but also with the preconception that the US was not at war at all. His views on these issues have become both tempered by his investigation and discussions with officials in Pakistan and the US, and also quite nuanced. Once example of this can be found in his explanation of his comments earlier this year in which he is broadly quoted as saying that Pakistan has not consented to US drones attacks on its soil. His elaboration of how he came to this position is quite interesting, and well worth listening to (it starts at minute 23).
Far from simply accepting the assertions of Pakistan’s civilan officials that they have repeatedly protested against drone strikes, Emmerson starts his analysis from the passage of a law restricting consent to the use of drones by officials of the Pakistani government. Since the US and the international community are interested in promoting democracy and the rule of law, Emmerson argues, such a restriction, passed by the elected representatives of the Pakistani people should set the basis of consent. To allow back-room deals to trump a duly enacted law would be anathema to the promotion of democracy.
Emmerson then preempted the ever-realist Wittes’ rebuttal that the democratic government of Pakistan is not the effective government with regard to matters of national security and foreign affairs by pointing out that while Pakistan is clearly a flawed democracy, it is also by the same token a fragile democracy that should be nurtured rather than subverted in the name of expedience.
Another point made by Emmerson which displays his objectivity and thoughtfulness relates to the perception that drones could unduly high civilian casualties. Emmerson cited UNAMA statistics kept over the last decade on civilian casualties from various kinds of ordinance. And while that data clearly shows that drone attacks in Afghanistan tend to cause substantially fewer civilian casualties than attacks by fixed-wing air craft, the perception of the the majority of Afghans is the exact opposite: that drones are prone to killing innocents. He therefore wonders (without concluding) whether drone warfare is in the long run more harmful than other means of achieving similar ends.
Other points warrant mention as well, but in all, I am very impressed with Ben Emmersion’s intellectual honesty and objectivity. I now truly look forward to his report, due to be produced in September.
Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research