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Defending Drones at UN, Koh Says Transparency Is Aided by US on HRC, 2d Term Promises

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, October 19 -- When Harold Koh came to the UN on Friday to pitch the US' candidacy for a second term on the Human Rights Council, his opening statement did not mention an issue with which he has become associated: drones.

  Nor did the moderator's question to him -- Koh was asked what the US would do on its HRC campaign pledge about torture. While important, this seemed a softball focused on the previous Bush administration. (An ACLU question extended it to what the Obama administration will do to hold accountable those who tortured in the past.)

  There were only ten minutes left when Inner City Press was able to ask Koh to "address drones, on which there's been controversy at the Human Rights Council and elsewhere, whether their use complies with human rights law. Would the US support a special session or inquiry into the use of drones to commit executions?"

  When it was Koh's turn to answer -- he was moved up in the queue -- he cited to his own speech "in March 2010, echoed by John Brennan at the Wilson Center....The point is, all killing is regrettable [but] not all killing is illegal."

  He said that killings by drone "in the course of armed conflict or in self defense is consistent with international law." He cited Al Qaeda, the Taliban and "associated forces" -- presumably including Al Shabab in Somalia and forces in norther Mali or Azawad -- and said it is "not illegal to target an individual who is leader of an opposing force."

  What about a 16-year old who is not a leader? What about "collateral damage"?

  These weren't answered. Rather, Koh said he thought he questions were "ask[ed] in friendly way." He closed with the pitch that it would easier to work on the issue and get "transparency" if the US remains on the Human Rights Council. And then he left.

  Inner City Press had also asked, "if the others running [for the Human Rights Council had] a interest in having drones addressed at the Council, the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries."

  But the other candidates present did not address this in their answers after the question. Germany's Permanent Representative Peter Wittig answered a question about vote-trading by saying that Permanent members of the Security Council don't have to engage in it, but others do. Estonia and Montenegro addressed this and other points, but not drones.

  Argentina acknowledged that the Latin slate is "clean" -- three candidates for three seats -- just as it ran unopposed the day before for a two-year seat on the Security Council.

  Ireland's closing statement concerned the "style" it brings; the moderator's Irish question about about food security." Sweden focused on Internet freedom -- the country hosts, for example, sites that Russia argues are subject to UN Security Council sanctions.

  Greece spoke about the difficulty of being besieged by immigrants. There were echoes of the previous Romney - Obama debate, to which Koh jokingly referred. But drones are no joke. Watch this site.

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