“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come,” the US poet Carl Sandburg wrote hopefully in 1936.
His sentiment seems more apt than ever nowadays, but not because humanity has turned pacifistic. Rather, wars are increasingly fought remotely, with drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — doing the killing.
Under US President Barack Obama, the number of drone strikes carried out by the US has soared, with more than 300 UAV attacks reported in Pakistan alone. In March last year, the US Air Force for the first time trained more pilots for drones than for any other purpose.
This raises serious ethical questions. With no military personnel risking their lives, UAVs make it easier to kill and to justify war operations to the public at home. Moreover, a human being’s reticence to kill is inversely related to the distance between attacker and target. In the case of a pilot flying drones over Yemen by operating a joystick in Nevada, the threshold to pulling the trigger is dangerously low. Killing is just a part of the job, to be followed by bowling, perhaps, or a quiet evening at home.
Meanwhile, the mere sound of drones terrorizes whole populations, indicating to enemies and civilians alike that they are being watched and might be attacked at any moment — which could well play into the hands of terrorist recruiters.
From a legal and human rights point of view, the US drone program is even more alarming. After all, countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia do not belong to declared war zones. In turn, outside the context of war, state killings are legal only if they prove absolutely necessary to save lives. They must be conducted either in self-defense after an attack, or in anticipatory self-defense against an immediate threat, when taking time to discuss non-lethal alternatives is not feasible.
More than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, the country’s drone program does not fall into the first category of reactive self-defense. Likewise, there is no evidence that any presumed terrorist who was killed outside of official war zones in the past few years represented a threat so immediate to US citizens’ lives that preventive and premeditated killing was the only option. Unless US leaders prove otherwise in every case, UAV attacks in countries like Pakistan or Yemen should be called what they are: extrajudicial killings.
US Department of State legal adviser Harold Koh disagrees, saying that the US is involved in a worldwide “armed conflict with al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces.”
Therefore, drone attacks are part of a global war fought both in declared war zones and non-war countries and are therefore legal, Koh says.
However, even under this adventurous assumption, human rights issues arise. The laws of war condone targeted killings only of “combatants” who “directly participate in hostilities.” The killings must be proportionate, strategically necessary and publicly justified. Avoiding harm to civilians should be the top priority. At the slightest sign of illegality, an investigation must be conducted, offenders prosecuted and victims compensated.
Yet the US drone program’s legal basis is entirely unclear. Given that most information about UAV activity is classified, it is impossible to know whether all drone targets directly participated in hostilities. While the Obama administration’s claim of zero or single-digit civilian fatalities may be true according to the official definition, it rests on the premise that any military-age male killed in a drone strike is a militant, unless intelligence posthumously proves otherwise.