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Wonking Class Hero in Action

U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston, Miller-McCune's most recent Wonking Class Hero, takes on the arms-length warfare of drones.

The concept of conducting war through targeted killings was taken on Wednesday by someone who should be familiar to Miller-McCune readers: Philip Alston, the United Nation's special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

Alston, Miller-McCune's Wonking Class Hero in May, in particular takes on the current star on the U.S. effort to root out presumed terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — the drone.

While acknowledging that the use of these missile-firing unmanned aerial vehicles is both legal and effective in some circumstances, Alston decries their mission creep and the dead civilians often left through collateral damage or outright mistakes.

"Even where the laws of war are clearly applicable," Alston writes, "there has been a tendency to expand who may permissibly be targeted and under what conditions. Moreover, 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. Most troublingly, they have refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences."

With 40 countries possessing or tinkering with drone technology, Alston fears that cavalier use by the U.S. sets the stage for cavalier use worldwide.

Alston writes, "The result is that the rules being set today are going to govern the conduct of many States tomorrow. I'm particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. But this strongly asserted but ill-defined licence to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other States can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions."

Alston's 29-page report, (PDF here) being delivered today to the United Nations' Human Rights Council in Geneva, comes out just after news of the latest No. 3 for al-Qaeda has been dispatched by a U.S. drone strike, albeit the attack occurred last month near the Pakistani village of Miran Shah. Given the positive reaction by U.S. officials to the attack and pro forma posturing by Pakistani officials over violations of their sovereignty (violations that routinely remove opponents of their own state) in this and other strikes, the use of drones by the U.S. seems likely to accelerate.

The Philip Alston described in our profile would not blanch from those long odds or the power of his adversary. The 59-year-old Australian has stared down screaming officials around the world, sometimes in remote places where those officials are surrounded by armed thugs. In more "civilized" locales where the threat is more subtle and less violent, he's made use of the media to leverage his bully pulpit.

As Paul Tullis wrote for us, "Maximizing coverage is one of the most important things a special rapporteur can do; lacking as he does any actual force of law, publicity affecting a country's reputation becomes the diplomat-expert's biggest stick."

In that manner, Alston's report finds the sweet spot for tweaking the U.S.'s nose even when he's not alleging illegality. For example, noting that drones are often operated by service members safely ensconced in the United States, he cautions against operators developing a "Playstation mentality to killing," a blurb-ready quote if there ever was one.

"He's been very strong about actually setting out specific recommendations in terms of what the government should do," James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch, told Tullis. "His reports have been extremely well written, and not written like U.N. reports. He uses strong language; he doesn't hold back and he really writes things to be strong advocacy documents."