Drones and their challenge to justice

Writing with regularity is currently one of my most irritatingly difficult goals to achieve. Striving on regardless, I hope the piece below will prove interesting.

The debate over the military conduct of Western countries, particularly the U.S., has focused over the past year partly on the various implications of using unmanned drones to strike at international terrorist targets. The implications are, as with many things, wide-ranging. Ethical, legal and practical matters all have a part to play in the discussion over drones. However, popular opinion sways back and forth based on different considerations. By and large, the trend is that the U.S. public back drones when they perceive the terrorist threat to the U.S. as large – the bombings in Boston back in April 2013 encouraged more positive public opinions over the issue. According to research conducted on the issue, reminding citizens of democratic values and ideals fails to influence their opinion of the strikes in any tangible way. Does this mean that the ethics of drone strikes have little to say in the public discussion? Once viewed with purely practical, instrumental goals in mind, the drone programme begins to come under a lot less scrutiny. Nevertheless, human rights groups continue to raise objections to the programme, claiming that has caused civilian deaths, promoting fear and chaos in the countries where it has been used. I find myself sympathetic to these latter points.

Defining our legal understanding of how and when unmanned drones may be used in conflicts must take these ethical, rights-based points into account, as well as noting the realities and facts about drone strikes. International law is perhaps then the meeting point of these two areas – the practical and the ethical. If a consensus is to be reached, we need to be clear about how they weigh up against one another.

Instrumentally, in their goal of eliminating insurgent leaders and key groups, drones are very successful. That is something that most are agreed on. Alex Young, writing in the Harvard International Review, claims first of all that civilian deaths from the programme have been very low due to technological and non-technological changes. The development of smaller blast radiuses from missiles guided by extremely precise technology plays a part, as does cooperation with the intelligence networks of countries where the strikes take place. Importantly, the follow up argument says that alternative methods of military intervention are much less effective, and much more costly. Sending soldiers in to clear areas of insurgents is exceptionally messy and leads to the entanglement of U.S. forces, dissent among the country’s civilians and prolonged armed resistance. Protracted land engagements can cause thousands of civilian casualties – we need only look at America’s recent wars to prove this point. Another alternative, manned air strikes on targets, lacks the flexibility of drone attacks – drones can wait and observe the target for extended periods of time.

However, the comparison with other forms of intervention merely presupposes the idea that it is necessary and permissible to strike at insurgents in other countries even given the fact that at least some civilian casualties do occur. This is the point on which human rights groups disagree with the U.S. state: should drone strikes be allowed to occur even when they can cause destruction to innocent targets without any chance for resistance? Ethically, the practice seems dubious. The human rights groups lodge their complaints in legal terms, claiming that the U.S. is violating international law. This is based on the suggestion that drone strikes might entail war crimes for the damage they cause. The U.S. government, in its typical suspicious manner, declines to share the data about its strikes, maintaining a classified status for almost all its documents on even past data about targeting and the consequences of strikes. I am therefore left unable to provide concrete facts; nevertheless, ethical objections must be borne in mind.

Supposedly, we can next turn to the reality of international law and see how these competing standpoints sit within it. Sadly, international law is yet to be defined on the subject, and rather requires a preceding consensus between states. I recently heard Ben Emmerson, a British human rights lawyer acting as a rapporteur for counter-terrorism for the United Nations, discussing this issue.  He makes a series of important observations – first, that there is currently no such consensus. Secondly, drones are suited to asymmetrical warfare, where one of the parties is a non-state armed group – a terrorist network.

What does the consensus need to be on? The most pressing issue is to determine the exact circumstances under which extra-territorial force is permitted, since at the moment, the U.S. feel that they are engaged in a non-international armed conflict with Al-Qaeda.  Taking the ‘War on Terror’ in its literal sense, then, implies that the U.S. can use drones as it sees fit against its enemies. Moreover, the war apparently transcends national boundaries and spans all corners of the globe. Because there is no consensus, the frightening ability of the U.S. to reach out with military force to areas far beyond its domestic jurisdiction can continue unimpeded. So long as the law is not defined, the U.S. government can continue to act however it wishes at times of ambiguity. We need to know exactly when war is the reality and drones are permitted.

But is this conclusion really enough? I find myself troubled, as I am sure many would, by the concept of an unaccountable state able to declare war on any perceived target and strike immediately with the use of robotic weaponry, should the definition of war be sufficiently broad. And in fact, therein lies the crux of the issue with drone use and indeed the U.S.’ (and other states’) international conduct. The state is totally unaccountable. “They’re claiming success at killing the right people and ignorance or indifference to the wrong people dying,” as Amnesty International’s advocacy adviser for Pakistan, told Al Jazeera. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a deplorable moral standpoint and it is heavily damaging for the perception of the West in Middle Eastern/West Asian countries. Pakistani sovereignty has been curtailed by the U.S.’ actions – their parliament unanimously approved a resolution against U.S. drone strikes, and yet they continue. I cannot see how such action does not suggest support for the argument that while drones may kill off terrorist leaders now, they exacerbate the perception of the U.S. as an enemy, perpetuating militant tendencies among fragile populations.

Why do we continue to do little about the fact that the ‘War on Terror’ is used as justification for the pursuit of some ends that directly contravene justice? I regard drones as a great practical improvement over the land war fought against insurgents over the past decade. But I abhor the idea of them as a tool for the U.S. to remove its enemies at a time of its choosing. On top of this, with the CIA desperately immune from oversight by the U.S. Congress, unaccountability threatens the pursuit of justice. International cooperation and consensus on drone engagements before countless strikes are carried out must become the norm, lest unaccountability wreck the chances for an improvement in the troubled relations between these parts of the world.


One thought on “Drones and their challenge to justice

  1. Timna

    This argument has serious teeth, but I find myself wondering why it is that the U.S. government don’t provide countries such as Pakistan with the technological means to destroy insurgents in their own jurisdiction, improving military infrastructure (instead of merely ‘sending in the marines’ and thereby eliminating the self-sufficiency of the country’s domestic military) and eliminating the need for America to parade its power across the globe, leaving destruction in its wake. The answer seems to me to be a fear of repeating the funding of future (or indeed, secretly present) terrorist governments as they did with the Cold War funding of Bin-Laden’s regime.

    The next question is, are these fears at all founded, or are they simply a product of residual racism? For myself, I believe and think it almost necessary to believe that this is not the case, and that countries such as Pakistan are genuinely committed, though ill equipped, to ending terrorism. Good relations with such countries will come from respect and not suspicion. The U.S. must learn not to see evil everywhere, not to become the enemy which therefore breeds combatants.

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