Ryan Goodman’s “Memo to the Human Rights Community” is a perplexing critique that takes a surprising tone, coming from a former U.S. government official who worked on these issues and knows very well that the U.S. government has long been an outlier in its interpretation of international law to its use of lethal force.

We in the human rights community acknowledge, of course, that there is a debate going on, but it is a debate largely manufactured by the U.S. government. The fundamental question is whether an armed conflict exists, who is a party to it, and what geographic and temporal limitations apply. The U.S. government’s view seems to acknowledge virtually no meaningful limits, and would essentially assume that anyone the U.S. government targets is a combatant. This is the opposite of what international human rights law requires.

Ryan writes that “the Obama policy guidance envisioned” setting forth “a set of policy constraints to address when the U.S. government could use lethal force in an armed conflict.” That may be what the administration envisioned, but that’s not, in fact, what the PPG (or at least the parts the government has disclosed) says.

By its terms, the PPG applies outside “areas of active hostilities,” but as Ryan knows, for legal purposes, this is a made-up American term that fails to limit the guidance to areas where the laws of war, or International Humanitarian Law, clearly do apply – within recognized armed conflict. 

This is one reason human rights advocates have long expressed concern about Obama’s targeted killing rules, because they leave open the possibility of lethally targeting suspected “terrorists” who are not members of armed forces against which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict.

I’m sure we can all agree that the U.S. government should not be aiming to kill civilians or carry out extrajudicial executions. That’s exactly what human rights law, which prohibits arbitrary deprivation of life in all situations, seeks to prevent. And it’s why many of us in the human rights community believe the U.S. government needs to stop misapplying IHL and limit the lethal force authority it claims.

Image: Getty/John Moore