The United Nations special rapporteur for counterterrorism will lead an inquiry into civilian deaths from US drone strikes around the world, to determine whether the strikes violate international human rights and humanitarian laws.

The announcement was made by Ben Emmerson QC, a UN special rapporteur, in a speech to Harvard law school in which he condemned secret rendition and waterboarding as crimes under international law. His forthright comments, directed at both US presidential candidates, will be seen as an explicit challenge to the prevailing US ideology of the global war on terror [...]

In his Harvard speech, he said: “If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms … then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act.

“Together with my colleague Christof Heyns, [the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings], I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [UN] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks.”

The US has said that drone attacks fall within international law because they are carried out as a means of self-defense against individuals and aligned groups who would otherwise do the US harm. But this designates the entire world as a battlefield for the global war on terror, and Emmerson questioned the validity of that framework, saying that “the global war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US.”

The special rapporteur has previously asked for video footage of all US drone strikes, as a means to determine the extent of civilian casualties. In Orwellian fashion, the US has described all adult males in close proximity to a drone strike as an enemy combatant, because they would not otherwise be within range of a drone. Even under that standard, the drone attacks have killed civilians.

This counter-terrorism policy of covert, targeted assassinations has gone largely unexamined during the Presidential campaign, because the major party candidates generally agree on the concept. Mitt Romney affirmatively gave his support to the drone program at Monday’s foreign policy debate. And this damages the ability for the public to get a clear sense of the policy being carried out around the world in their name:

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

Obviously, America should not relax its vigilance against terrorist threats. (Of course, heavy-handed airport security is another story). But drone strikes are a form of military convenience – no boots on the ground and no American casualties (aside from the stray teenager in Yemen). And at a certain point, it becomes difficult to justify both practically and morally such extraordinary measures based on a horrible morning in 2001.

But, alas, that kind of debate will not be conducted during the last 12 days of the presidential race or anytime soon.

Strong words from a veteran of Washington, journalist Walter Shapiro. There are indications that the media is at least recognizing the importance of this policy, and working to provide a better understanding of it. The Washington Post’s three-part series on the subject is a good example. But ultimately, to get a true debate and discussion on the topic, you would have to break this bipartisan consensus on flying robots delivering death half a world away.

The bipartisan consensus ends up throwing this whole debate into the cockeyed prism of tribal political associations. Ask an Obama supporter about “Romney’s drone program” and you get a negative response. Ask them about Obama’s drone program and you don’t, or it just gets dismissed. This has been the great leveling effect from the adoption by a Democratic Administration of the previous Republican Administration’s counter-terrorism policies – it has forged this consensus. The UN investigation may be one way to drop the scales from the eyes of Americans on this program, though I’m not hopeful.