Afghan launches legal challenge over UK role in Washington kill list

An Afghan man has started legal proceedings against the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) to reveal whether the UK had a role in supplying information to a US military joint integrated prioritised target list (JIPTL) in Afghanistan.

Habib Rahman, a bank worker in Kabul, lost two brothers, two uncles and his father-in-law in a US missile strike on their cars on September 2, 2010.

The case has serious legal ramifications not only for the UK government, but also for the United States and President Barack Obama, who authorises targeted assassinations of those on the Afghan Kill List.

The New York Times on May 29 published a report clearly drafted with the assistance of the White House and the Pentagon of how Obama personally approves extrajudicial assassinations, including of US citizens, by CIA and US military drone aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. Though Afghanistan was not specifically cited, the Times notes that Obama and his national security advisors gather in the White House situation room for weekly “Terror Tuesday” meetings. A kill list of potential targets is reviewed, before Obama “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan—about a third of the total.”

Rahman’s lawyers anticipate that the legal challenge will force officials to open up about the British contribution to the killings in the 2010 Kabul incident and about the “compilation, review and execution of the list and what form it takes.”

Legal correspondence sent to the MoD and SOCA says that the possible involvement of the UK in the decisions concerned “may give rise to criminal offences and thus be unlawful.”

Rahman’s family members had been helping another member who had been campaigning in the Rustaq district of Takhar province, in northern Afghanistan, in the run-up to the country’s parliamentary elections. A total of 10 Afghans were killed and several others injured in the incident. Rahman insists most of those who died were election workers.

NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force lauded the killings, stating that the target had been a man in the convoy called Muhammad Amin, accused by the US military of being a Taliban commander and that the people travelling with him were insurgents.

A detailed study of the incident by the research group Afghanistan Analysts Network contradicted the official account, saying NATO had killed Zabet Amanullah. According to the study’s author, Kate Clark, Amin was tracked down after the incident and proven to be still alive: “Even now, there does not seem to be any acknowledgment within the military that they may have got the wrong man,” she said.

The correspondence sent to the MoD and SOCA states that Britain’s contribution raises several concerns, particularly in cases where international humanitarian laws protecting civilians and non-combatants may have been broken. Rosa Curling from the solicitors Leigh Day & Co, told the Guardian, “We need to know whether the rule of law is being followed and that safeguards are in place to prevent what could be clear breaches of international law.”

Letters to the director general of SOCA, Trevor Pearce, and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond note that the Geneva conventions state that persons taking no active part in hostilities are protected from “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds.”

They draw on the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has previously stated that anyone accompanying an organised group who is not directly involved in hostilities “remains civilian assuming support functions.”

“The general practice of international forces in Afghanistan and the experience of our client suggest that proximity to a listed target is, on its own, sufficient for an individual to be considered a legitimate target for attack. Such a policy would be unlawful under the international humanitarian law principles,” Rahman’s lawyers state.

SOCA said that it “does not discuss intelligence,” but works “strictly within the bounds of international law” in line with other UK government departments. The MoD made a similarly trite claim.

The JIPTL was described as a “kill list” in a 2009 report to the US Senate’s committee on foreign relations, where the role of SOCA in helping to compile such a list was first publicly acknowledged. The report described how a new task force targeting drug traffickers, insurgents and corrupt officials was being set up at Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan. “The unit will link the US and British military with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency], Britain’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and police and intelligence agencies from other countries,” it stated.

The precise rules of engagement were classified, but two generals in Afghanistan had explained they “have been interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritised target list.”

The report noted, “The military places no restrictions on the use of force with these selected targets, which means they can be killed or captured on the battlefield.”

Targeted assassinations have become a central part of the US/NATO strategy in Afghanistan, involving the participation of both British and Afghan special forces. This forms part of a wider US-led targeted killing programme in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. These killings are now routinely carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones”.

A vast escalation of the deployment of such drones has taken place under the Obama administration. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently estimated that as many as 4,000 people have been killed in US drone strikes since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A significant proportion of the victims are civilians.

In June, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, told an ACLU conference in Geneva that Obama’s attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout decades-long established human rights norms. They presented a major challenge to the system of international law established following the Second World War.

The UN special rapporteur suggested that some of the US drone attacks may constitute war crimes.

Heyns and other UN rapporteurs were at pains to explain that, despite their unease over drone strikes in areas far from those “recognised as being an armed conflict”, as it weakened the “rule of law”, they weren’t at all opposed to imperialist military conflict itself.

The Obama administration has issued a fresh rebuff in recent months through the US courts to a request for information about targeting policies, insisting that such details must remain classified.