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Drone killings

By Sascha-Dominik Bachmann

Targeted killing by drones (using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Combat Aircraft Systems (UCAS) as weapon platforms) has become an increasingly debated subject. Criticism is not only directed against its overall legality and legitimacy, but also its negative impact on the theatre state as a sovereign state in cases of extraterritorial strikes, a potential lack of efficiency, and a growing uneasiness with its morality. It seems there has been a change in how targeted killing is viewed. Apart from a growing discomfort with civilian ‘collateral’ casualties, there is growing concern about its effectiveness and the acceptance of targeted killing as a new form of warfare. Ben Emmerson, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, has called for more transparency and accountability when employing this form of warfare.

Drones protest at General Atomics in San Diego by Steve Rhodes,CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Targeted killing has direct implications for the morality of armed conflict and combat. Evolving drone technology arguably removes the soldier from the actual battlefield and with it the intimacy of war. UAV technology has created a mechanical and moral distance between the operator and his ‘target’. Targeted killings may have removed any remnants of the ‘humanity of combat’. Such a dehumanizing distance between the protagonists of this new form of armed conflict, asymmetric in terms of weapon technologies and capabilities, has led to a growing criticism of the Obama Administration’s use of drones. Keith Shurtleff, the US Army Chaplain and military ethics teacher, aptly summarized this concern “that as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.”

Linked to these emerging morality concerns is a growing debate in regard to targeting efficiency: whether target elimination is indeed as efficient as has been claimed, and whether the rising numbers of civilian ‘collateral’ casualties during combat, among the affected civilian populations in Pakistan has a negative impact on antiterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns. The number of American drone strikes in Pakistan has significantly increased under Obama, since he took office in 2009: “Estimates state that while there were 52 such strikes during George W Bush’s time, this number has risen to 282 over the past three and a half years.” While the Obama Administration maintains that its drone program was largely successful in terms of efficiency rates and low civilian ‘collateral’ casualties, new reports show the opposite. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reported “that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured additional 1,228 – 1,362 individuals,” which would amount to a ‘collateral’ rate of 20 percent.

Whether such a figure alone constitutes violations of the principles of distinction and proportionality of the Law of Armed Conflict, and therefore constitutes possible war crimes, has yet to be seen. A critical high profile joint report by Stanford /NYU report, Living Under Drones, which was released last autumn, alleges that there was a lack of effectiveness when targeting leaders and commanders of Taliban and other affiliated forces. The report calls for a careful re-evaluation of the current use of US targeted killing and drone strikes. These findings contradict any policy announcement by the US government. The casualty figures from the above TBIJ report have already found their way into global public debate. Together with another report by Columbia University, which investigated the human cost of drone strikes, and the UN’s decision to embark on an official inquiry into the use of drones, the official US policy announcement that drone strikes constituted “a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer” is in serious doubt. Moreover, this critique already takes into account that the US has a right to defend itself against Al Qaeda, and therefore the United States is in an armed conflict with a non-state actor. How much harder would it be to justify such ineffective strikes under the alternative non-combat paradigm of law enforcement?

The repercussions of the increasing reliance on drones for executing enemies abroad has led an increase in anti-US hostility, possibly swelled the numbers of the Taliban and other affiliated groups in the region, and led to open criticism by its ally in the region, Pakistan. The Obama Administration has not been taken Such ‘collateral damage’ in the wider sense seriously enough. As the main protagonist of this form of warfare, an omission might turn out to question the success of the ‘War on Terror’ in general and Operation Enduring Freedom in particular. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s recent announcement to impose tighter oversight and targeting rules on drone strikes will be enough to change anything.

Sascha-Dominik Bachmann is a Reader in International Law (University of Lincoln); State Exam  in Law (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), Assessor Jur, LL.M (Stellenbosch), LL.D (Johannesburg); Sascha-Dominik is a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Army Reserves and had multiple deployments in peacekeeping missions in operational and advisory roles as part of NATO/KFOR from 2002 to 2006. During that time he was also an exchange officer to the 23rd US Marine Regiment. He wants to thank Noach Bachmann for his input. This blog post draws from Sascha’s article “Targeted Killings: Contemporary Challenges, Risks and Opportunities” in the Journal of Conflict Security Law and available to read for free for a limited time.

The Journal of Conflict & Security Law is a refereed journal aimed at academics, government officials, military lawyers and lawyers working in the area, as well as individuals interested in the areas of arms control law, the law of armed conflict and collective security law. The journal aims to further understanding of each of the specific areas covered, but also aims to promote the study of the interfaces and relations between them.

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