Washington: The US government for the first time has offered a legal justification of its drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban militants, citing the right to "self-defence" under international law.
The CIA attacks by unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere have sharply increased under President Barack Obama`s administration but have remained shrouded in secrecy, with some human rights groups charging the bombing raids amount to illegal assassinations.
Broaching a subject that has been off-limits for official comment, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh laid out the legal argument for the strikes in a speech late Thursday, referring to "targeting" of al Qaeda and Taliban figures without mentioning Pakistan or where the raids are carried out.
The United States was in "an armed conflict" with al Qaeda, the Taliban and its affiliates as a result of the September 11 attacks, Koh said, "and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defence under international law."
"With respect to the subject of targeting, which has been much commented upon in the media and international legal circles, there are obviously limits to what I can say publicly," he told a conference of the American Society of International Law.
"What I can say is that it is the considered view of this administration -- and it has certainly been my experience during my time as legal adviser -- that US targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war."
The CIA would not comment on the speech, posted on the State Department website, but said: "The Agency’s counterterrorism operations are conducted in strict accord with the law."
Rights activists and some legal experts charge the drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries, outside of a traditional battlefield, amount to extrajudicial executions that violate both international and the US law.
Koh, a fierce critic of former president George W Bush`s policies before he took his post, disagreed -- saying a US ban on government sanctioned assassinations did not apply.
Under US law, "the use of lawful weapons systems -- consistent with the applicable laws of war -- for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defence or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute `assassination,`" he said.
He also argued that the US government was not obliged to offer legal rights to the militant figures targeted in the strikes as the United States was at war and acting in self-defence.
Koh said the government was careful to limit attacks to only "legitimate" military objectives and to ensure attacks adhered to the principle of "proportionality”, keeping civilian casualties to a minimum.
Civilian deaths from the drone war have triggered popular anger and fed anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.
Pakistan publicly criticises the targeted assassinations but quietly cooperates with the Americans, analysts say, with Islamabad allowing the use of an air base on Pakistani soil -- a detail a US senator accidentally let slip at a hearing last year.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which recently filed a lawsuit demanding the government disclose its legal rationale, welcomed the justification.
"We`re encouraged that Koh has articulated the legal rationale for the program," said Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow at the ACLU.
But he said he hoped the administration would provide a more detailed account of its legal justification.