In previous posts (here and here), I discussed the reasons why Obama will never actually enforce the “near certainty” standard regarding civilian casualties and noted that the standard is vastly more restrictive than IHL’s principle of proportionality. In this post, I want to explain why the new targeting standards for the use of lethal force “outside the United States and areas of active hostilities” represent a complete retreat from IHL in general. As I discuss in my article on signature strikes, the US has always insisted that its drone strikes are governed by IHL, not by IHRL, because – to quote John Brennan – “[a]s a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces.” Yet almost none of the requirements articulated in the fact sheet the US released regarding Obama’s speech have any basis whatsoever in IHL. Here are those requirements:
 A target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons;
 Near certainty that the terrorist target is present
 Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed
 An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;
 An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and
 An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.
Requirement 1 could perhaps be reconciled with IHL’s concept of membership in an organized armed group, which requires the individual to assume a continuous combat function therein, as long as we assume that anyone who qualifies as a member poses “a continuing, imminent threat” of violence. But it cannot be reconciled with the idea of direct participation in hostilities; almost by definition, a civilian who DPHs does not pose a “continuing, imminent threat.” Moreover, nothing in IHL requires a fighter in a non-international armed conflict to pose a threat to the United States; has Obama now abjured the right of the US to act on behalf of other states fighting terrorism, at least outside of the “active zone of hostilities”?
Requirement 2 echoes IHL’s presumption of civilian status and requirement (in Art. 57(2) of AP I) that “[t]hose who plan or decide upon an attack shall… [d]o everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects.” But Requirement 2 (“near certainty that the terrorist target is present”) seems to articulate a standard that is singificantly more restrictive than IHL, even accepting that the quantum of evidence IHL requires to rebut the presumption of civilian status is unsettled. Israel and New Zealand, for example, believe that IHL prohibits an attack only if there is ”substantial doubt” or “significant doubt,” respectively, about the status of the target. Even the ICRC appears to adopt a less restrictive standard, insisting that an attacker must presume civilian status even in cases of “slight doubt.” (Although perhaps “near certainty” and “slight doubt” are two sides of the same coin.)
Requirement 3 was addressed in my previous post…