Drones were set out to be a means to avoid collateral damage, but their practical use shows otherwise. While drone strikes are effective in eliminating targets, too many drone attacks without reprieve can incite several political repercussions: by actually making as many terrorists as they kill and by altering perceptions towards the United States – which is increasingly rubbing the people of Pakistan and Yemen (among others) on the wrong side – in the process risking the creation of more enemies. There is also an increasingly alarming reliance vested in technology – as opposed to time-tested measures of human intelligence. Having become embroiled in the use of drones, the US is deeply entrenched. On the one hand, in Yemen, the United States is backing a very weak government that has to contend with a local affiliate of the Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, the Pakistani military supports US strikes against its enemies while decrying strikes against extremists.
While these drone attacks have succeeded in hitting their targets, there is evidence to show that its very purpose of avoiding unnecessary civilian casualty and collateral damage has been side-stepped. The number of people killed by the strikes, which no doubt includes al-Qaida terrorists and local militants in its fold, inevitably includes some civilians. While estimates vary widely, as many as 3,000 people have died in both countries combined.
The deployment of “signature strikes” or strikes against guerrillas in Pakistan or Yemen appearing to be members of al-Qaida Affiliate groups but who have not been identified individually is detrimental to the fabric of international law. That the US uses force and intervenes in these countries is an open secret, but a dangerous precedent that side-steps Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.
The use of drones is a contentious issue in International Law. Though in principle there is no basis for the acceptance of the use of drones, much less the deployment for targeted killings itself, the US viewpoint has offered up a couple of arguments justifying their conduct.
Depending on the setting against which the targeted killing itself occurs, namely, wartime or peacetime, humanitarian law or human rights law will apply. What is patently obvious is irrespective of the setting, law is flagrantly violated. The only possible exception to the prohibition on the use of force is Article 51 of the UN Charter, but even that sliver of a legal justification does not authorize or legitimize targeted killings.
Targeted killing refers to premeditated, intentional and deliberate deployment of lethal force as a tactic, by a State, its representatives under its authorization or an armed group in the course of an armed conflict, in order to target a specific individual, who is not in the custodial repository of the perpetrator entity itself.
The purported contention backing the use of such a technique, quite simply, is that the Global War on Terror justifies the use of force to target and kill suspected terrorists wherever they may be. With this as a “justification” offered to their conduct, one might be led to evaluate the said conduct against the principles of humanitarian law. However, that cannot be the right course of action since the United States is not in a state of war. An armed conflict as defined under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 among other things includes all cases of declared war or of any armed conflict that may arise between two or more high contracting parties even if a state of war is not recognized. These “parties” are states. The requisite precondition for humanitarian law to apply in a global context is that there should be an international armed conflict between states. The drone attacks that single out terrorists and kills them is not against the backdrop of war.
The United States lays claim to pursuing its right of self-defence under the ambit of international law. This contention, however, fails. Self-defence can only be indulged in response to an armed attack, with specific reference to the necessity quotient and adherence to proportionality. Self-defence cannot be taken up without informing the UN Security Council. In most instances of the US drone attacks, these essentials have not been adhered to.