Saturday, 11 August 2012

Who Will Stop the Drones?

Sam Storr

B66 1966 - Unchecked, drone warfare harks back to the excesses of the kill-by-numbers approach resorted to in Vietnam. US Federal Government archive.
The so-called drone wars, began by George Bush and accelerated under Barack Obama, represent nothing less than a totally illegal campaign of systematic, often indiscriminate and senseless murder. It is of vital importance to say this each and every time the topic of the drones is raised, for it is not even secrecy that allows the drones to fly so freely.

Although the existence of CIA bombing campaigns cannot be officially admitted due to 'national security reasons', the Obama administration has had no qualms about publicly referencing it. Indeed, recent Defence Department leaks have made Obama seem indecently proud of his personal involvement in the alleged secret US 'kill list', raising the frightening possibility that innocents across the world will feel the weight of the President's electoral ambitions in high explosives. The US government still makes little information available, but journalists, activists, and NGOs are doing much to fill the gap.

Rather, the US exploits the superficially extra-legal territory that its drone use occupies. The official US silence on the matter is more likely intended to thwart legal attention rather than directly protect national security. Positive statements about the legality of drone operations are coupled with a policy of studied, callous indifference to the facts of what it does.

For example, the Department of Defence clings doggedly to the position that very few civilians are killed in drone operations. This is in dispute of evidence from a variety of sources, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which are certain that large numbers of innocent civilians have in fact perished. The fact of the matter is that the US makes no attempt to gather the intelligence that might justify their statements.

At times, information supplied by local partners is used to identify specific militants. The reason for drones being used though, is usually because these partners are less-than perfect. As such, this has been criticised for allowing informants to use US drone capabilities as a utility to pursue their own interests, for example by removing a rival.

If this were not enough, many attacks are made on a more spurious basis: the 'signature strike'. This is the method used when the military or CIA wants to kill someone, but has nobody specific in mind. A target can be identified by whether the pattern of their movements fits that of an imagined militant. By the time the 'kill zone' is identified, everybody of militant age is an assumed combatant, and the military does not feel obligated to ascertain whether this was really the case. With such a targeting procedure, the technical precision of the strike is immaterial.

The target of every drone attack is therefore by definition a militant; the more targets that are destroyed, the more successful seems the campaign, and the desire for more blood only grows. This is also in direct contravention of international humanitarian law, which dictates that all reasonable attempts must be made to ensure that civilians do not become military targets. To do this, of course, would make the widespread use of drones impractical.

However, most drone strikes take place in countries where the US is not at war, is not acting in self defence, and has not been authorised by the Security council to act. For the analyst Jeremy Hammond, this makes drone strikes 'incontrovertibly illegal' under Article 2 of the UN convention. Yet this reading is insufficient, as the response to terrorist attacks from unstable states is clearly not something accounted for by the authors of Article 2.

International law has thus far failed to respond to the American challenge, which has been to brazenly distort international legal principles in its favour, whilst making no attempt to recreate a stable, robust and whole international system. This is why UN Rapporteur Christof Heynes is claiming that drone use threatens fifty years of international law.

Therefore the Bush administration considered terrorist acts such as September 11 to be acts of war rather than of criminality, thus unlinking warfare from the concept of states and of international mediation, undermining the entire basis of the international legal system governing conflict. This is essential, as peacetime assassination is banned, as is the use of the weapons carried by drones in law enforcement operations; in war, the threshold for the use of extreme force is lowered, though not previously to the level at which the drone wars operate.

Missiles are aimed not at states, but at poorly-defined 'illegitimate belligerents', to whom precious few legal obligations are owed, especially when they lie dead in a far-off land rather than being an unsightly presence in a Cuban prison.

From Bush through to Obama, the meaning of the terms 'civilian', and 'militant' have also been altered, and the concept of the 'pre-emptive strike' has been strengthened. Although the Obama administration's dropping of the phrase 'War on Terror' seemed a positive development at the time, it now reads as a signal that it could care less about the meaning of what it does.

As Medea Benjamin points out in Drone Warfare, the idea of allowing a place such as Yemen to be bombed on these terms is equally as mad as allowing Hellfire missiles to be directed at uptown Hamburg, London, or New York.

This practice of redefining legal boundaries is of course completely illegitimate. Legal scholar David Glazier argues that most in his profession concur that drone pilots are not technically combatants, and therefore should face no protection from prosecution in the countries upon which they unleash their missiles. Additionally, the CIA, a civilian agency, is wrongfully in charge of many of these attacks.

Above all then, the drone wars rest on the inability of international legal bodies to innovate and to challenge power. Hence the importance of the opening statement; it is caution and complacency that allows the international system to be so badly abused. The beginnings of a high level UN investigation are only just forming, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial killings proffering his belief that war crimes may have been committed. 

Thankfully, despite the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the drone campaign and the associated military hardware industries, this blissful period in which the US military can rain down destruction on the 'others' at will, as it has long dreamed of doing, does have an air of impermanence.

The international community soon begin to realise its direct self-interest in taming the beast, as drone technology becomes more widely available to other rogue states, criminal groups, and terrorists. As the August cover of US Wired magazine so thoughtlessly put it: 'Why should the military have all the cool stuff?'. Israel is also regularly using drones in Palestine. Hezbollah has already flown several Iranian-made surveillance drones over Israel, and has even on occasion attempted to fly in weaponised versions. The possibility of a domestic terrorist drone attack is no doubt the topic of frantic discussion at the Pentagon, as the use of commercial drones spreads.

The legal basis for evaluating drone tactics requires not just research, but hard legal precedent. As international law remains far too selective in its prosecution, unable to challenge the powerful, a system may be built as the monopoly of the skies slips from America's hands. 

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