The American government should display more transparency and give clearer legal guidelines for targeted killings and the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Philip Alston, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, during a lecture last week.

The human rights expert spoke to students about the United States’ operations in the Middle East, drawing on his own experiences as an international lawyer and a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, a position he has held since 2004. Alston recalled his numerous, and mostly fruitless, encounters with the government about legal issues surrounding military and CIA operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When he first engaged the government about possible human rights violations, Alston said, he was told that since the operations were “part of the global war on terror, (which) equals an armed conflict,” the U.N.’s human rights commission had no role in the matter, as human rights don’t apply. Alston challenged this position, emphasizing that for the past 20 years the “US itself had been on the forefront” of encouraging the UN Special Rapporteur to get involved in situations of armed conflicts.

Alston went on to voice his concern that many civilians were becoming victims of drones and targeted killings. Of the 1700 individuals killed by drones since 2004, approximately 500 were nonmilitants.

“Now those of you who know international humanitarian law will know that there is no easy figure in terms of size (or) what numbers of civilian casualties are acceptable in this sort of context,” he said. “But nonetheless, the rate of 30 percent seems on the face of it to be pretty high.”

Referencing the recent military documents released on WikiLeaks, Alston described a conflict situation in which Afghan civilians were put on U.S. military capture-or-kill lists by business rivals, and Special Forces units sometimes killed people on the lists before Intelligence verified that the targets were threats.

Alston said that in Pakistan, the CIA runs numerous operations unbeknownst to the public. Although “states have legitimate security interests and they need to gather intelligence in order to defend themselves,” Alston said more transparency from the CIA is needed.

“We’re turning an intelligence agency which we know operates in that gray/black zone into an operational force which is killing people in significant numbers, which draws out its own target list and carries out those killings,” he said.

Alston has brought up the issue of accountability to the CIA and the U.S. government, but has yet to receive an official response.

Alston ended his lecture with what he thinks should be four minimum requirements for government transparency about targeted killings. disclosure of the legal criteria establishing who can be targeted and killed; legal justification for where and when these killings can occur; precautions to ensure that such killings are within legal limits; and, proper follow-up when civilians are alleged to have been killed.

Alston is a professor of law and the co-chair for the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School. His published works include “Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate seen through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals” in Human Rights Quarterly (2005) and the book Human Rights and Development Towards Mutual Reinforcement (2005).

– Joanne Wong