War: It’s Illegal!

I missed this story yesterday: UN investigator warns US on use of drones:

A U.N. human rights investigator warned the United States Tuesday that its use of unmanned warplanes to carry out targeted executions may violate international law. …
[Philip] Alston, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s investigator on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, raised the issue of U.S. Predator drones in a report to the General Assembly’s human rights committee and at a news conference afterwards, saying he has become increasingly concerned at the dramatic increase in their use, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, since June.
He said the U.S. response — that the Geneva-based council and the General Assembly have no role in relation to killings during an armed conflict — “is simply untenable.” “That would remove the great majority of issues that come before these bodies right now,” Alston said. “The onus is really on the government of the United States to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions are not, in fact, being carried out through the use of these weapons.” …
“Otherwise, you have the really problematic bottom line — which is that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a program which is killing significant numbers of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws,” he said.

This could pose an interesting challenge to the Obama administration, which has stepped up the use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drones are popular domestically because they can kill the enemy without endangering our own soldiers. The idea that we should account to the United Nations for our use of this anti-terrorist tool is repugnant, yet kowtowing to the U.N. and this sort of legalism is one of Obama’s deep instincts.
In my view, little good comes from wrapping warfare up in legalism. There is nothing unique about drone attacks; if they are “illegal,” why not the use of bombs, guns, knives, you name it? The end point of this reasoning is that war itself, however waged, is illegal. Fine: illegality, actually, is one of war’s least objectionable qualities. But turning decisions concerning our national defense over to the U.N. would be a disaster.


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