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.



Views: 344

Tags: Drones, Force, International, Law, Remote-control, Use, of, warfare


You need to be a member of Global Ethics Network to add comments!

Join Global Ethics Network

Comment by Kirthi Jayakumar on March 21, 2013 at 9:36pm

Hi Kevin!

Thank you for reading my post :) I definitely agree that there is a sound logic to your interpretation, and that it could be argued that way. That said, I don't mean to say that my way was the "right way" or any such, being a little bit of a "conservative" applicant of the law, I find it a little bit of a stretch (for me - does not, for a second, take away the merit in your argumentation!) to look at it that way. But I suppose experience and a better understanding of the interconnection of law and international relations would help me see it :) Thank you for pointing it out!

Comment by Kevin Coughlin on March 21, 2013 at 4:41pm

Great post Kirthi!

Couldn't it be argued, however, that the U.S. is engaged in a war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates? From my understanding, under international law, an armed conflict isn't necessarily between states. The Geneva Conventions make a distinction between non-international armed conflict (NIAC) and international armed conflict (IAC), so the U.S's war with al-Qaeda, if it is understood as that and not as a "War on Terror," would have to be considered as operating under the NIAC framework. Unfortunately, there is significantly less legal conditions governing NIACs (only Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II) as states tend to view these conflicts as internal problems and not subject to international authority. So humanitarian issues definitely arise from that reluctance to accept international standards, but most states, including the U.S., apply Common Article 4 regarding civilians as customary law if engaged in a NIAC.

So if the conflict is viewed as something along these lines then the U.S's decisions regarding drones can be considered within the backdrop of a war - one of a non-international character. It is a war that was spurred by the attacks on September 11th (although since its been over 10 years since that point, the argument from self-defense seems to be getting thinner).


Comment by Kirthi Jayakumar on March 18, 2013 at 12:37am

Thanks Sumantra! Points completely taken and agreed with.

Thank you for the links - this is going to be an interesting day! ;)

Carnegie Council

In Solidarity

The killing of George Floyd is another tragic moment in the long and painful history of racism in America. We feel the anger that arises from this assault on human decency. We hear the cries for action. The Council stands in solidarity with the millions of citizens who are raising their voices demanding change. Carnegie Council's motto is Ethics matter. We believe Black Lives Matter.

Vox Populi: What Americans Think About Foreign Policy, with Dina Smeltz & Mark Hannah

What do Americans think about the role the United States should be playing in the world? How do they conceive of the different trade-offs between domestic and international affairs, among competing options and sets of interests and values? The Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Dina Smeltz and Eurasia Group Foundation's Mark Hannah share the results of surveys from their organizations in this conversation with Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev.

China's Changing Role in the Pandemic-Driven World, with Amitai Etzioni & Nikolas Gvosdev

How has the pandemic changed U.S-China relations? How has it altered China's relationship with other nations and its geopolitical positioning? George Washington University's Amitai Etzioni and Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev discuss these questions and more as they break down "great power competition" in the era of COVID-19.





© 2020   Created by Carnegie Council.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service

The views and opinions expressed in the media, comments, or publications on this website are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Carnegie Council.