In a room full of computer screens, a US civilian with a joystick on the console kills a man thousands of miles away. Having aced a course on drones with ferocious names like Reaper, Hunter, and Tigershark, he is competent to take down a target — a dangerous terrorist, a drug lord connected with the Taliban, a farmer planting IEDs, or, accidentally, an innocent civilian, as the drones are liable to targeting errors. The drones often save American lives and tax dollars at the expense of the lives of innocent civilians: just last month, an air strike mistake led to 23 civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
However, instead of addressing the targeting failures or keeping the drones in the combat zone, the United States sometimes dismisses problems by defining its enemies as “unlawful combatants” and keeping the drone operations secret. If Washington continues to excuse itself from the rule of law in this manner, the use of armed unmanned vehicles may create more problems than it solves.
Last week, a 29-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council called on the United States to exercise greater restraint in its use of drones outside of war zones because the use of drones undermined global constraints on the use of military force. The report stressed that the drone technology is changing the rules of conflict and undermining the foundations of humanitarian behavior in war. Here are just some grounds on which the US use of drones could be challenged.
First, although the drones have become a prominent feature of US counterterrorism efforts, Washington keeps the limits and the justification of drone killings secret. Such secrecy stifles public debate on the use of drones, prevents the investigation of civilian casualties, and allows the United States to avoid following the rules of combat.
Second, while it views its own right to self defense in a very expansive and open-ended manner, the United States denies such a right to the suspect targeted by the drone. Frequently operated outside of combat zones, the drones target not only terrorists, but also those who help them and, depending on the nature of the help, may deserve a punishment far less severe than killing.
Third, the use of drones violates Washington’s own 1947 National Security Act, which separates intelligence and military functions. The drones in Pakistan are operated by the CIA – a civilian agency tasked with intelligence gathering that has no privileged combatant status under the Geneva Conventions- and are exempt from the well-established protocols that cover military operations.
To maintain its legitimacy when conducting military operations abroad, the United States must fully comply with international humanitarian law and adhere to the standards of the so-called ‘just war against terror’ not only in motivation, but also in execution. This means establishing clear limitations and rules for drone targeting, removing the CIA from drone operations, lifting the veil of secrecy from the issue, keeping drone use within the limits of the acknowledged battlefield, and protecting civilians from drone attacks more rigorously. Simply admitting that accidents do happen despite the highest levels of standards and practices is not enough.
Next time it contemplates the need for establishing rules for drone use and lifting the surrounding secrecy, Washington should imagine a lawless world where Iran and North Korea have acquired armed drones. Today, the United States is only one of over 40 states that have invested in the drone technology. Each of these nations has a long list of enemies and would find that when it comes to targeted killings, the more secrecy and the fewer rules, the better. One of the states whose use of drones is likely to rise in the near future is Russia, which currently has 18 drone programs and is also training personnel to operate Israeli-made drones. Having killed its enemies by means as exotic as Polonium poisoning in the past, the Kremlin will be able to take its assassination practices to a whole new level by using drones. Thus, to ensure that the drone programs of other countries don’t take a dangerous turn, the United States should set and abide by high standards while it still leads in drones technology.
By avoiding international law, the United States agrees to the absence of the rules not only for other sovereign states, but also for the very terrorists it targets. While Washington claims to attempt to win hearts and minds abroad, its actions stoke anti-Americanism and inspire more terrorist attacks, and the Taliban could well argue that the US drones are not that different from its remote control IEDs. It is important that the feeling of outrage at terrorist acts does not weaken American ethical considerations regarding the use of drones because even the so-called “unlawful combatants” should be fought in accordance with the law.