The Killing of Qassim Suleimani Was Unlawful, Says U.N. Expert

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The United States provided no evidence that its fatal January drone strike against General Suleimani was in response to an imminent threat, said a United Nations special rapporteur.

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GENEVA — A United Nations expert investigating summary executions said on Thursday that the United States’ targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran was unlawful and risked eroding international laws that govern the conduct of hostilities.

Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur investigating extrajudicial and summary executions, said that the American drone strike that killed General Suleimani as he arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in January could only be justified in international law as a response to an imminent threat. The United States had provided no evidence to support that position, she said.

“Absent an actual imminent threat to life, the course of action taken by the U.S. was unlawful,” Ms. Callamard wrote in a report that she presented on Thursday to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The retaliatory missile attacks Iran launched against American bases in Iraq five days later were also “completely outside the scope of what is permissible” in international law, Ms. Callamard said.

Ms. Callamard’s report as a United Nations independent expert is intended as an international wake-up call that will help to generate critical scrutiny and action on issues hitherto debated mainly by academics, lawyers and security experts.

There is an urgent need for international action to monitor and regulate the use of drones and the threat they pose to international law, Ms. Callamard said. In the absence of a clear legal framework for holding states accountable for drone strikes, she called for the U.N. Security Council to review all targeted killings and for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit annual reports on drone strike casualties.

In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Ms. Callamard’s report as “spurious” and said that it “gives more cause to distrust U.N. human rights mechanisms.”

General Suleimani commanded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the military that ran clandestine operations across the Middle East and was designated by President Trump as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019.

President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they ordered the strike in response to an imminent threat of attack but provided no evidence in official explanations to Congress and the United Nations.

In a memo to Congress, the administration said only that it carried out the strike as a response to previous Iranian attacks and “to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests.”

The information that Trump administration officials provided was “remarkably vague and inconsequential as far as a possible imminent threat is concerned,” Ms. Callamard wrote in the report. “Even at the most basic level, the U.S. did not demonstrate that striking Suleimani was ‘necessary.’”

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