Use of drone warfare by U.S. under attack
WASHINGTON — Civilian death estimates are referred to as “bug splat.”
The weekly White House meetings to evaluate candidates for the “kill list” are tagged “Terror Tuesdays.”
Among the many lives that hang in the balance at these meetings are those of the wives and children of alleged terrorists, the people who come to the aid of blast victims after an attack and people who show up at their funerals. The logic is that if they know the terrorist, they must be collaborators so why not “double tap” — hit them with a second strike.
This is the covert world of killer drone warfare, what some people refer to as Washington’s worst-kept secret.
This is a sort of armchair killing where drones are remotely piloted from bases in the United States. Using drones makes going into battle safer and cheaper for the attacker but not for the attacked. It’s Lethal Toy Story.
Ben Emmerson, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights, said the rise in the use of drone technology “represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law” and has called on the international community to create standards for drone warfare and “reach a consensus on the legality of its use,” particularly in counterterrorism and counter-insurgency.
What worries many is that drones lower the threshold for making war and may violate international and humanitarian law as civilians in countries not at war with the U.S. pay with their lives.
With the State Department claiming the number of al-Qaida members is growing, the question is whether drone killings work.
Micah Zenko, a security policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said reports from both military and academic experts conclude that military force rarely leads to the elimination of terrorist organizations. Most have been eliminated either because they were infiltrated by police or as a result of a peaceful settlement.
Both for political reasons and because of the questionable legality of it, the U.S. drone program is cloaked in a frayed veil of secrecy. While American courts have refused to order the government to release information about a program that officially doesn’t exist, the Obama administration leaks when it benefits Obama’s image. It’s hard to keep Hellfire air-to-surface missile attacks secret.
Pre-election concerns that Obama was appearing weak resulted in a series of New York Times stories in which unnamed administration sources depicted him as tough enough to make the weekly drone-kill decisions. Obama became the moral man saddled with a troubling but necessary drone war to keep America safe. One official quoted Obama as saying that the decision to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi, an al-Qaida recruiter and an American citizen, in Yemen in September 2011 “was an easy one.”
This article was followed by a speech last June by Obama’s “high priest” of killer drones, John Brennan, who at the time was his lead terrorism adviser and is now his nominee to head the CIA. He said that “to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”
The killer drone program began under former president George H.W. Bush in 2002. Fifty strikes occurred under his administration. Obama has accelerated the program seven-fold with 350 strikes, according to Zenko and other experts.
Estimates vary as to how many “terrorists” and how many “civilians” have been killed. Of the 32 al-Qaida leaders on Obama’s kill list, 22 have been killed, 21 by drones, Zenko said. The total number of people killed is much higher — more than 3,000 according to some accounts. How many of these were civilians depends on how “civilian” is defined. The administration says civilian deaths are minimal. Non-government organizations say the figure is more than 2,000. Naureen Shah, association director of the counterterrorism and human rights project at Columbia Law School, said the criteria for a drone strike fall into two categories. Socalled “personality” attacks means that the government knows the identity of the person targeted. “Signature” attacks target people whose identities are unknown but whose behaviour gives a terrorist signature. For example, they could be seen carrying a weapon or transporting, say, fertilizer that could be used in improvised explosive devices. Or they could be simply giving first aid to a victim of a drone strike.
“The U.S. has never acknowledged that they conduct signature strikes,” Zenko said. “When John Brennan was asked the question specifically, he refused to answer. And the reason is it gets into a lot of sort of international legal problems.”
Under the 2001 congressional authorization for military force, the CIA and the military, which carry out the drone attacks, have to show that the targets pose a significant and imminent threat of violent attack to the U.S. The problem with signature strikes is that if the identity of the targets is unknown, how can they be sure that they pose such a threat? A so-called “terrorist” in Yemen could simply be a militant fighting the local government. A Taliban fighter hiding in Pakistan is commonly interested only in forcing NATO soldiers out of his native country, Afghanistan.
The U.S. is operating killer drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and is seeking a base in North Africa where it has begun talks with Niger. The U.S. is not at war with any of these three countries and none of their governments has officially approved the attacks, largely because they are so unpopular among their people.
Shah said it is illegal under international and humanitarian law for the U.S. to be attacking a country with which it is not at war. This becomes a possible war crime when the U.S. is killing civilians who pose no danger to the United States, he said.
Emmerson notes that under international human rights law it is “unlawful to engage in any form of targeted killing.” Countries chasing terrorists outside an area of armed combat must first try to make an arrest. Lethal force can be used only as a matter of “immediate self-defence.”
Brennan states the U.S. is in a global war with a stateless enemy that transcends national boundaries. America’s main concern is that another al-Qaida training camp will spring up in some remote tribal area. No U.S. president wants that to happen on his watch.
The United States has refused since 2004 UN requests for information about the drone attacks, which under international law the U.S. is obliged to provide.
So last month Emmerson announced he will do 25 case studies of drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and the Sahel to determine whether there is any “unlawful killing” that could trigger a war crimes investigation. He hopes to present his report to the UN General Assembly in October