Barack Obama

Rights groups fault new Obama plan for vetting drone strikes

President outlines a more targeted campaign, defends drone strikes as 'legal and necessary' and urges closure of Guantanamo detention camp

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 4:20am

Proposals to vet future US drone strikes risk creating "kill courts", according to human rights campaigners. They say President Barack Obama's promise of new legal oversight does not go far enough to end what they regard as extrajudicial executions.

The president has asked Congress to consider establishing a special court or oversight board to authorise lethal action outside war zones under a new counterterrorism doctrine he says will end the "boundless war on terror".

But responses to his speech from leading campaign groups highlight how little change Obama is proposing to the underlying principle that the US has a legal right to kill suspected terrorists abroad without trial.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama suggested that in the future drone attacks would be limited, and that they would be carried out primarily by the US military rather than the CIA.

Obama said that US military intervention abroad did not guarantee the safety of Americans at home, and often fomented extremism. "A perpetual war - through drones or special forces or troop deployments - will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways," he said.

The president cast the drone programme as crucial in a counterterrorist effort that will rely less on the widespread deployment of US troops as the war in Afghanistan winds down. He said he is deeply troubled by the civilians unintentionally killed.

"For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live," he said. Before any strike "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured - the highest standard we can set".

In Pakistan alone, up to 3,336 people have been killed by drones since 2003, according to the New America Foundation. Obama also said he would ask Congress to review his proposal for future drone strikes to be subject to court review or an independent oversight board.

"The establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorise lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority," he said.

Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights Campaign, said: "What's needed on drones is not a 'kill court' but rejection of the radical redefinition of 'imminence' used to expand who can be killed as well as independent investigations of alleged extrajudicial executions and remedy for victims.

"The president was right to call for repeal of the 2001 authorisation for use of military force, but he doesn't need to wait for Congress to act on this. He can unequivocally reject the 'global war' legal theory today, once and for all, and put an end to the indefinite detention, military commissions and unlawful killings it has been used to justify."

This view was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which welcomed new restrictions against so-called 'signature strikes' on suspicious groups but warned the notion of legal authority for targeted assassinations remained deeply flawed.

Both groups also urged the president and Congress to do more to shut the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and expressed concern about plans to seek a US location for military commissions rather than try detainees in civil courts.

"President Obama was right not to endorse the concept of indefinite detention, but his proposal to restart unfair military commissions in the mainland US should be rejected as both unlawful and unnecessary," said Johnson of Amnesty. "Congress must stop hindering reform."

Additional reporting by Associated Press