Trade and the crisis in Ukraine are likely to dominate the agenda during US President Barack Obama’s first official visit to Brussels on March 26.
But the European Union and Nato leaders also should use the summit to press Obama on another critical issue: ensuring that US operations against terrorist suspects, most often carried out with remotely piloted aircraft known as drones, comply with international law.
A strong European stance on targeted killings is the clear wish of the European Parliament, which in February passed a resolution calling on the EU to “promote greater transparency and accountability” from countries that use armed drones, and to “ensure” that victims of unlawful drone strikes have effective access to remedies.
Targeted killings are also of concern to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Later this week (March 27-28) the council is expected to approve its own resolution pressing states to ensure transparency on drone attacks and to carry out prompt and impartial investigations when strikes may have gone wrong.
The US, disappointingly, opposes the Human Rights Council resolution, making it all the more important that the EU press the issue directly with Obama.
Two UN special rapporteurs also have recently issued separate reports expressing concerns about potentially unlawful targeted killings and calling for greater transparency.
Taking a strong rights-respecting stance on drones is critical not only for the US but also for EU member states. Currently the UK is the only EU member that deploys armed drones - in Afghanistan. But a “drones club” composed of France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain is developing an armed drone.
The US has carried out at least 400 drone strikes and other targeted killings since Obama took office in 2009, reportedly killing upwards of 2,600 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to independent research groups. Obama disputes claims of significant civilian casualties in these strikes.
But his administration won’t confirm any casualty figures, much less individual strikes or the total number of its targeted killing operations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has serious concerns that at least some of these attacks violate international law and Obama’s policies on targeted attacks announced last May, including that the US strikes only when it has “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed.
In examinations of seven US targeted killing operations by drones and other weapons systems since 2009 in Yemen, we found clear violations of the laws of war in two attacks that indiscriminately killed civilians.
One unlawful attack killed 14 alleged militants, but also 42 sleeping Bedouins, two-thirds of them women and children. The other killed 12 civilians - 8 farmers, a mother and 3 children - on a sports utility vehicle coming home from market.
HRW found possible laws-of-war violations in the other five cases, including a strike on cars in a wedding procession that killed 12 men, wounded 15 others, and slightly injured the bride.
HRW also questions the US assertion that it is in a global war with Al-Qaeda and similar groups and that therefore the laws of armed conflict apply to all of its targeted killings.
Outside of armed conflict, where criminal justice rules govern, states can only use lethal force to prevent an imminent threat to life. The US has not made a compelling case that its attacks are all governed by the laws of war or overcome the higher threshold for the use of lethal force outside armed conflict.
EU states often deplore legally questionable actions by foreign governments. Yet they have hesitated to do the same when it comes to their close ally, the United States.
EU countries will not undertake criticism of their powerful friend lightly. But the misuse of drones has implications that extend beyond the actions of the United States - and that over time will circle the globe.
The US unwillingness to acknowledge possibly unlawful aspects of its targeted killings program or conduct the necessary investigations into specific attacks sets a dangerous precedent for other governments that may seek to use armed drones against their enemies - whether those strikes are launched from Russia, China or even somewhere in Europe.