The revolution in robotic warfare is about to go global. Many countries are trying to develop or acquire remote-controlled “drone” aircraft such as those the United States has used to kill hundreds of alleged militants in Pakistan. Before this proliferation occurs, liberal democracies should be working to clarify and strengthen international rules on the use of these weapons systems.
The U.S. seems to be taking the opposite course, extending its drone campaign to countries far removed from the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan – including Yemen and Somalia – and using rules of engagement that are, at best, obscure and, at worst, illegal.
This is a dangerously short-sighted strategy. While execution by drone may appear to be a relatively low-cost and low-risk option for dealing with America’s enemies, it legitimizes methods that other countries may be expected to follow once they acquire similar capabilities.
Canada, which doesn’t yet operate armed drones, has little to say on the subject. We have traditionally spoken strongly for international law, but apparently not in this case.
The drone’s rise to prominence is a remarkable story. Ten years ago, the U.S. military had fewer than 60 in its arsenal; today, it has more than 6,000. Many of these unmanned aircraft are used only for surveillance, but some models can carry missiles or bombs. The Predator C Avenger, for example, can cruise at 53,000 feet for as many as 20 continuous hours, tracking targets on the ground with powerful sensors. It can also carry 3,000 pounds of precision munitions.
It’s an open secret that the CIA runs a major drone program in Pakistan. According to statistics compiled by the Washington-based New America Foundation, there were nine U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2007 and 33 in 2008, the final year of George W. Bush’s administration. After Barack Obama became President, that figure jumped to 53 in 2009 and 118 in 2010.
Three months ago, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the CIA would launch a similar lethal drone program in Yemen, where the U.S. military has been conducting occasional strikes against al-Qaeda affiliates for years. The Washington Post then reported the first U.S. drone attack against militants in Somalia. If these reports are accurate, they point to a significant escalation of the clandestine drone war – with little fanfare or public debate.
Indeed, part of the allure of these weapons systems is that they generate relatively little bad publicity at home. They put no U.S. pilots at direct physical risk because they’re flown by remote control, sometimes from thousands of miles away, and their strikes often take place in remote areas, unwatched by journalists. Nor, as a rule, does the U.S. government announce covert drone attacks.
But the Obama administration’s growing reliance on automated assassination may come with a higher-than-expected price tag, not only for Americans but also for the rest of us.
To understand why, think about the messages Washington is sending through its drone campaign. One message, which Mr. Obama reiterated last Sunday, is that those who would harm the U.S. “cannot hide from the reach of justice, anywhere in the world.” But there’s an implicit message: We are the law. We can kill anyone we consider a threat, and we don’t need to tell you any more about why (or even whether) we target particular people.
The very secrecy of some U.S. drone activities, in other words, obscures the process and criteria by which American officials select individuals for aerial execution. Nor does the U.S. provide information on its procedures for reviewing the results of its drone strikes. How are military personnel or private contractors held accountable in the case of a wrongful killing, for example?
“The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum,” wrote Philip Alston, a prominent New York University law professor, in a report for the United Nations.
Expanding the geographical scope of lethal drone attacks only magnifies this problem. Although U.S. intelligence forces have been banned from engaging in assassination since 1976, Washington now asserts its right under domestic and international law to conduct “lethal operations” outside of traditional battlefields, on the grounds that it’s fighting a global armed conflict against al-Qaeda “and its associated forces.”
You could drive a school bus – or an Abrams tank – through that formulation. Yes, the U.S. should have the right to target individuals who pose a grave and imminent threat to Americans or the U.S. homeland, if they can’t be captured. That’s self-defence. But the Obama administration’s self-declared right to use lethal force seems unlimited, at least in the way it’s phrased. There are no geographical limits, no temporal limits, and no hints as to how the U.S. determines which people fall into the vague category of “associated forces.”
Again, the message is: We don’t need to justify these killings, or even make them public.
Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the precedent the U.S. wants to establish for other countries acquiring drone systems? Who will stand against automated assassination?
Roland Paris is University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa.Report Typo/Error
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