On the 18th June, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions called on the United States to clarify its legal justification for killing, rather than capturing, those they suspect to be terrorists. As noted in many reports, these killings are now usually achieved by the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, aka drones. Praised for their speed and supposed accuracy, drones represent the greatest advance in military technology in the past ten years, and perhaps the greatest step backward in morality.
The use of drones in killing those assumed to be terrorists is seen as causing a loss of the moral high-ground and as a failure in moral leadership by the United States. The most recent high-profile death by drone was that of Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan on the 4th June. The operation was deemed ‘inhumane’ both by al-Libi’s brother and human rights campaigners. Al-Libi, second-in-command in Al-Qaeda, was obviously a strategically important target for the US, who stated that his death brought the organisation ‘closer to its ultimate demise than ever’. Yet his death provoked moral outrage and statements of condemnation from Pakistan and international human rights organisations.
The technology, ostensibly the most accurate and least likely to cause civilian death, while used by many States (including the UK) finds its champion in the United States, who have embraced drones for reconnaissance and strategic targeting operations. With the ability to be controlled by a person in a room thousands of miles away from the scene of the operation, the immediacy of war disappears; some have called drone operating as akin to playing a video game. Whilst the use of drones is steeped in just war rhetoric, it is difficult to term such a strike ‘just’ when almost all of the losses are sustained by one side, while the other remains safely ensconced in a room far away.
The use of drones in the context of the al-Libi killing and other killings in Pakistan and Yemen represent a transgression of international law. Drone strikes, when undertaken in an armed conflict scenario against a combatant or civilian directly participating in hostilities (such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan) are sanctioned under international law. The U.S. is not engaged an armed conflict with Pakistan or Yemen. It is not possible under international law to be in an armed conflict with a transnational non-State organisation such as Al-Qaeda – an armed conflict requires violence between two or more States. Violence between a State and a terrorist organisation is governed by international human rights law. Human rights law requires that an individual be captured rather than killed if possible. Typically referred to as the ‘capture or kill’ dilemma, it appears that “the capture part has become largely theoretical.” Recent reports revealed that President Obama personally goes over a list of those deemed a threat to the US, and more often than not chooses to kill. Another worry rests on the fact that the remote drones used in the al-Libi killing and other such strikes are operated by the CIA. CIA agents are non-combatants, and thus have no right to take part in an armed conflict, if, as the US claim, that is what the violence between the US and Al-Qaeda is. The US invokes the rhetoric of war and law of war in order to legitimise their targeting of individuals away from the battlefield.
There are serious concerns raised by the lack of transparency of the drone programme, which has expanded in the three years since Obama took office. Prior to 2008, there were 48 targets killed by drones in 5 years ; 51 were targeted and killed in 2009 alone, and the attacks continue to increase. These figures account only for publicly recognised drone strikes – the programme is top-secret, and as such it is impossible to know exactly how many drone strikes have occurred. This also makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain how many civilians have died as a result of drone attacks. The US figure ranges from between 50 to 60 in the past eight years, and in 2011 it was stated that civilian casualties were in single figures that year from drone strikes. This contradicts other reports, such as that from the Pakistani Human Rights Committee, which places the number of Pakistani casualties at 957 in 2010 alone, and by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which places the figure in the thousands.
We have almost no knowledge of what criteria must be fulfilled in order to be put on the ‘death list’- what constitutes a militarily strategic target, under what parameters a terrorist is defined, what threat level they must hold or how imminent a threat an individual must be. For those targeted for aiding terrorist activity, we do not know what falls under ‘aiding’, be it the providing of financial funding or the storing of weapons. If an individual is wrongly targeted, we have no knowledge as to whether there is a system of accountability or who in the chain of command might be held responsible for the death of an innocent civilian.
Drone use and strikes will continue to increase as the technology becomes more widespread. On an individual state level, the international community has remained remarkably silent on the US’ excessive drone attacks, inadvertently lending them a tacit legitimacy. This will likely encourage the use of similar tactics by other states. Based as it is on reciprocity, the blatant flouting and disregard by the US of international law weakens the law as it discourages others from abiding by it. The lack of transparency is the most damaging aspect of the programme, both for America’s standing as a moral leader (which many will argue has been in decline for years) and for morality in war. The argument that drone strikes may not be the most moral option, but that they are the best option, is not good enough- capture may not be the easiest or most practical option but it should at the very least be considered. The US is sending out the message that it can target whom it wants, whenever it wants, with no repercussions for themselves. Other states will undoubtedly follow their dubious moral lead.