As part of a new report on targeted killings using drones, a U.N. human rights investigator says a January U.S. strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was an “arbitrary killing,” and that Iran’s retaliatory missile attack was not justified.
“No evidence has been provided that General Soleimani specifically was planning an imminent attack against U.S. interests, particularly in Iraq, for which immediate action was necessary and would have been justified,” said Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The strike took place as Soleimani’s convoy was leaving the airport in Baghdad, and it also killed a senior Iraqi military official and four members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.
The United States said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that its forces carried out the strike in self-defense "in response to an escalating series of armed attacks in recent months" by Iran.
But Callamard said the U.S. explanation “fails to describe even one ongoing attack” and that U.S. officials were “remarkably vague and inconsequential as far as a possible imminent threat is concerned.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said days after the strike that Soleimani had planned a “broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent.”
Callamard said because the attack was carried out without Iraq’s consent, it amounted to a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
“What is most telling is the failure of the U.S. to even address the rights of Iraq and explain, and provide evidence for, its use of force against the country and its citizens,” she wrote. “Until such an explanation is made, the conclusion must be that the strike is an act of aggression against Iraq, and the killing of its citizens and of non-citizens on its territory was unlawful and arbitrary under international law.”
Callamard is due to go before the Human Rights Council to present her findings on Thursday. The United States withdrew from the council in 2018.
Iran responded to Soleimani’s killing by launching missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. service members. That attack injured more than 100 U.S. military personnel.
As with the U.S. strike, Callamard cited Iran’s filing to the Security Council in which it claimed to have acted in self-defense.
She said Iran “made no reference to an imminent or ongoing armed attack by the U.S.” and that the strike against Soleimani “did not justify Iran’s subsequent actions.”
Callamard expressed concerns more broadly about the use of drones possessed by dozens of countries and that “the vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels.”
She said “mistakes are inevitable” in identifying and accurately striking intended targets, and that even when missiles hit their target, “the evidence shows that frequently many more people die.” Callamard writes that those casualties may amount to violations of international humanitarian law.
She calls for the United Nations and member countries to develop strong standards for transparency, oversight and accountability, to use arms control measures to control the proliferation of drones around the world, and to investigate allegations of unlawful deaths in drone strikes.
Callamard also suggested the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produce a yearly report that tracks drone strikes and casualties for members to debate at the Human Rights Council.