As international concern about U.S. targeted killings with drones rises, Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, said Sunday that every drone strike should be impartially investigated. According to Common Dreams,
"Emmerson is preparing a report for the next session of the Human Rights Council in March covering the use of drone attacks, which have spiked since Obama's presidency.
He questioned the legality of the drone strikes and noted the growing global outrage over their use. ‘We can't make a decision on whether it is lawful or unlawful if we do not have the data. The recommendation I have made is that users of targeted killing technology should be required to subject themselves, in the case of each and every death, to impartial investigation. If they do not establish a mechanism to do so, it will be my recommendation that the UN should put the mechanisms in place through the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner.’”
This comes as a flurry of drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the last four days have killed at least 18 people. Reuters reports that six people were killed in an attack on Saturday, five early on Sunday, and two more later on Sunday near the location of the previous strike. These attacks came as celebrations of the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of Ramadan, were occurring. Tuesday, a further strike killed five, according to the Associated Press.
Mr. Emmerson’s call for investigations is an important step, one that will hopefully mark the beginning of the end for drones as killing machines.
"Today's unmanned robotic planes only seemadvanced. A decade after the CIA and the Air Force tucked a Hellfire missile under the wing of a Predator drone, much hasn't actually changed: pilots in air-conditioned boxes remotely control much of the armed drone fleet; the robo-planes are easy for an enemy to spot; the weapons they fire weigh about the same; as much as they love the skies, they take refuge on dry land; and they're built around traditional airframes like planes and helicopters. Yawn.
Drones are moving out to sea -- above it and below it. They're growing increasingly autonomous, no longer reliant on a pilot with a joystick staring at video feeds from their cameras. They're getting stealthier; the payloads they carry are changing; and they're going global. They're pushing humans out of the gondolas of blimps. And the laboratories of the drones of the future aren't only owned by American defense contractors, they're in Israel and China and elsewhere, too. … Here's a look at the more ambitious ways drones are getting re-imagined."
Efforts to bring the rule of law to killing are not always easy or clear cut. Although as an advocate of non-violence, I can condemn all killing; whether killing in a conflict is “legal” or not depends on the circumstances in which it occurs. International law does not prohibit all taking of life.
Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor and research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is a specialist on the international law of armed conflict. In a column on CNN, she explains that under international law, killing enemy fighters during an armed conflict – a war – is legal. Outside of war, it generally is not, the human right of life prevails. Although this “dual standard for justifiable killing makes the law protecting the right to life more complicated,” it is how international law assesses violent conflicts.
One of the primary criticisms of using drones to kill high-level al Qaeda or Taliban leaders is that they are extra-judicial executions, and that a policy of capturing these militants and putting them on trial would be preferable. In addition, if they were captured, useful intelligence could be gathered. The rejoinder, of course, is how is it possible to capture people living in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan or Yemen?
It appears that the technology to answer that question may soon be available. Greg McNeal speculates in Forbes, with a scenario adapted from the Lawfare blog. Someday soon, a drone could launch a non-lethal weapon – something that stuns a person, perhaps a taser – lower a robot to the ground to retrieve the person, then return to the aircraft that returns to its base with the captured prisoner.
McNeal concludes, “Regardless of how you do it, it seems like technology is not the biggest hurdle in developing and perfecting drones that can capture rather than kill.”
While most of our attention is focused on the use of armed drones attacking suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, unarmed surveillance drones are taking to the skies across America, as the Toronto Star recently reported. The first known case of a drone assisting in an arrest occurred last year in North Dakota.
“Amid hundreds of hectares of corn and soybeans, far from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests last year of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family. The drone was called in after a dispute over a neighbour’s six lost cows escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police. It is one of the first reported cases where an unmanned drone assisted in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property. It was also a controversial sign of how drones — in all shapes and sizes — are beginning to hover over American skies.”
And, far from being an aberration, drones at home are proliferating.
“But the federal government has been quietly expanding their use. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. … While drone use in the rest of the United States has been largely theoretical, in eastern North Dakota it is becoming a way of life.”
Minnesota Public Radio also takes a look at the North Dakota scene, reporting on a drone research project at the University of North Dakota that is about to launch a program that would give sheriffs in 16 North Dakota counties access to two, and perhaps four, drones.
“With law enforcement budgets shrinking, technology is playing a greater role in policing. And for agencies that want air coverage, a camera-equipped drone, at a cost of around $50,000, can be a cheaper alternative to owning and operating a piloted airplane or helicopter. Minnesota law enforcement officials have expressed some interest, but without question, North Dakota is where the action is.”
While Predator and Reaper drones are currently in use, the next generation is already underway. The Northrop Grumman corporation and the U.S. Navy are testing what is known as the X-47B, a drone capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers. From Business Insider, here’s an animated promotional video from Grumman showing what its new drone can do. As a pair of the aircraft take off, swoop over deserts and mountains, firing missiles at targets on the ground; they look like bats from hell.
In the news today are two stories of drone victims seeking justice for relatives who have been killed or injured.
The Guardian reports on legal action being taken in the U.K. by an Afghan man who lost five relatives in a missile strike. A letter sent to the Ministry of Defense is demanding details of Britain's role in supplying information to the American military "kill list," including “the compilation, review and execution of the list and what form it takes." Habib Rahman, a bank worker in Kabul, lost two brothers, two uncles and his father-in-law in an alleged case of mistaken identity resulting in a U.S. missile attack on their cars on 2 September 2010.
And in Pakistan’s Dawn, Waris Husain, a Washington, D.C., based attorney and writer for the newspaper, examines the U.S. failure to compensate Pakistanis who suffer property loss or physical injury due to drone missions. While some survivors of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have received payments, none have gone to victims of drone attacks in Pakistan, and no U.S. court has accepted a claim by Pakistani civilians. Mr. Husain concludes: “While the US wishes to stabilise its relationship with Pakistan, the CIA shows no signs of minimising it use of drone strikes in Pakistan’s border region, which means a system of compensation for victims is absolutely necessary.”
German author and journalist, Dirk Kurbjuweit, in an essay in DER SPIEGEL,reports that the German military is considering whether it should buy armed drones. Given that “Germany is relatively scrupulous in matters of war,” he writes, “the unmanned aircraft seems to be the ideal weapon for the country.” But he then notes the questions that raises in regard to pride, humanity and the law, and argues that so-called “humane” drones are, in fact, the most brutal of weapons.
The fundamental question is an ongoing discussion over “whether humane weapons are even feasible. In other words, is it possible to create weapons that somehow protect perpetrators or lessen the damage to victims? In this context, the word humane is not an absolute but a relative concept, referring to a weapon that is less horrific than other weapons.”
One of the arguments for humaneness is the precision of the missiles, that they do not destroy as much of the area surrounding their target and thus produce fewer civilian casualties than bombing attacks from aircraft. They also pose no risk to the force using them, further reducing the casualties of war. On the other hand, their relative humaneness makes their use more likely; and the targeted executions of alleged terrorists are dubious under international law.
“A humane approach to war is a complex issue. Drones seem relatively humane, but that perception only increases the temptation to use them. They spare one's own troops, which is good, but they pose a great threat to civilians, which is terrible. As a result, the humane approach gives rise to a special form of inhumanity. …
But no one should allow themselves to be seduced by the idea that this weapon is humane or good. A drone armed with missiles exposes the essential nature of war in an especially clear way. Because a drone hunts down an individual, the slaughter loses its anonymity. The victim acquires a name and a face, and it becomes abundantly clear what war is all about: the destruction of human beings.”
In a speech yesterday in Washington, administration counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan defended the campaign of drone strikes in Yemen. As reported in the Los Angeles Times:
“In his most explicit comments on Washington's largely hidden military and intelligence operations in Yemen, John Brennan said no evidence indicates that the drone strikes are helping recruit members for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemen-based group that is Al Qaeda's most active branch. ...
"Brennan said that the drone pilots, who operate the aircraft from remote ground stations, make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. 'And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. ... In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.' "
Addressing a common concern, Brennan said that the only targets for drones are militants whose goal is to attack the US or its allies, not those fighting against the Yemeni government. He added that U.S. officials do provide intelligence information to Yemeni armed forces fighting against militants.
The report noted that the drone attacks are part of a larger strategy.
“U.S. special operations forces have been advising Yemeni military units, and Washington is providing $337 million in aid to Yemen this year, the largest American aid package ever disbursed to the impoverished nation.”
According to the Associated Press, over the past two days, in two separate strikes, U.S. drones killed 10 al-Qaida militants in Yemen.
The first attack late Monday hit two vehicles carrying seven passengers in the southern town of Radda, killing them all. Another U.S. drone targeted a second vehicle on Tuesday carrying three militants in the Zoukaika region of Hadramawt. One of the dead was identified as Abdullah Awad al-Masri, described as one of the "most dangerous elements" of al-Qaida in the militant stronghold of Bayda province and the man in charge of a bomb-making lab.
The Deseret News (Salt Lake City) published a thoughtful editorial this week raising some of the questions that need to be asked about drones. After citing the statistics on drone strikes and deaths over the last number of years, the editorial continues:
“This raises ethical questions about the way drones are changing modern warfare. As with nuclear weapons, which likewise changed war and its moral calculus, they prompt the question: Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?
Drones enable a warfare of focused assassinations. This strategy risks fewer American lives and is relatively easy to execute from a distance. But should risk and convenience drive the way we think about targeted killings? Do we have a clear sense of whether or when they cross a moral line? Who in our military hierarchy decides who lives and who dies, and what criteria do they use?
For a country that stands for the idea that justice should be decided fairly in courts of law rather than through contests of might, is there a line between justified killings and war crimes? How does our moral framework account for the hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children, chalked up to collateral damage? …
The country may well come down on the side of drone strikes as a new keystone of national security. But it should do so as the result of a full discussion of the facts and a careful shaping of policies. This discussion has not yet happened. It needs to.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is holding a convention this week in Las Vegas, with an expected 8,000 attendees, 500 exhibitors, and representatives from 40 countries. The Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith writes this morning that on Sunday, Franciscan Father Louis Vitale and CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin were informed their attendance was not desired as they were attempting to secure convention credentials. Smith explains:
“For Vitale, who served in the Air Force before joining the Franciscans, the advanced technology hasn't translated into cleaner combat. The much-touted precision of the drone aircraft has kept American military out of harm's way, but it hasn't eliminated the high price of civilian casualties in the war zones.
To many, this is part of the price paid to defeat a treacherous enemy and maintain our national security. To Vitale, Benjamin and their colleagues, it's too great a price. And then he asks, "What is the impact on the people, what is the impact on our own people?"
The priest believes the incidents of predator operators suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will be epidemic. His own experiences are anecdotal, he admits, but his conversations with British and U.S. military drone operators have been deeply troubling. Those onboard cameras not only spot suspected enemy targets, he notes, but they also reveal the damage wrought in unprecedented detail.”
The Long War Journal, citing AFP, reports that the first known U.S. drone strike in Yemen in more than a month took place Saturday:
“The U.S. killed five al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters in a drone airstrike in eastern Yemen. The strike is the first in Yemen in more than a month.
The unmanned Predators or Reapers fired a pair of missiles at a vehicle in Al Qotn in Hadramout province earlier today, AFP reported. Five AQAP fighters were killed in the strike.
No senior AQAP leaders or operatives are reported to have been killed in the strike. The identities of those killed have not been disclosed.”
Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post takes a look at an emerging “drone culture.”
“There has been far too little discussion of the moral calculus involved in using flying robots as tools of assassination. At the very least, the whole thing should leave us uneasy. Collateral damage — the killing of innocents — can be minimized but not eliminated. And even if only “bad” people are killed, this isn’t war as we’ve traditionally understood it. Drone attacks are more like state-sponsored homicide.”
After also looking at proposals for the domestic use of surveillance drones, and urging a “much-needed debate,” he concludes,
“The idea of robots acting as guardians of public order has become a staple of dystopian fantasy — “Terminator,” “Minority Report,” “The Matrix.” It is our duty to keep that stuff in the movies, where it belongs.”
Using data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Guardian has created an interactive map of drone strikes in Pakistan, showing the location of known strikes. Each is marked with a red dot, clicking on it shows the date and number of casualties. According to the data, there have been more than 330 strikes, with estimates of up to 3,247 casualties — including up to 852 civilians. The map is a useful and educational tool.
Imagine a job where you sit in front of a computer monitor, toggling a joystick that controls a drone, watching a family 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. You’re watching mothers and fathers with their children, children playing soccer; you watch them wake up in the morning, do their work, visit with their neighbors, and go to sleep at night.
Then one day when mom and the kids go off to market, the order comes to obliterate dad with a missile from high overhead. “Dad,” of course, is a “suspected militant,” which means he may or may not be a Taliban fighter, and that is all the justification needed to kill him.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its update for July of drone strikes and other US military and paramilitary actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The major conclusions:
Pakistan: CIA drones kill more people in July than any month so far this year after Pakistan reopens its border to Nato supply convoys.
Yemen: The US restarts Yemen’s $112m military aid programme as al Qaeda appears to return to more familiar terror tactics.
Somalia: Three al Shabaab militants are executed for ‘spying’ for western agencies, as the UN claims that more than 60 unknown air sorties took place over Somalia in the past year.
A U.S. drone attack on Sunday killed at least seven suspected militants in Pakistan. The Pakistani newspaper DAWN reported that the seven were Uzbek nationals living in the compound that was hit by six missiles.
This latest attack comes just before Pakistan’s head of intelligence is to visit Washington. CBS News reported drones will be a topic of the discussions:
“Pakistan will press the U.S. at a top-level intelligence summit this week to end unilateral drone strikes aimed at suspected militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Though the Thursday meeting in Washington between Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus is meant to ease the tension between the two allies, Pakistani and Western officials warn the issue of drone strikes may yield little common ground.”
In drone news this week:
The British Ministry of Defense acknowledged that Royal Air Force pilots flew U.S. Predator drones in Libya last year. According to The Guardian, “It is not known how many missions were flown by the British, or how many targets were destroyed by them.”
The Washington Post reported: “The skies over Somalia have become so congested with drones that the unmanned aircraft pose a danger to air traffic and potentially violate a long-standing arms embargo against the war-torn country, according to United Nations officials. In a recently completed report, U.N. officials describe several narrowly averted disasters in which drones crashed into a refugee camp, flew dangerously close to a fuel dump and almost collided with a large passenger plane over Mogadishu, the capital.”
Concern over the privacy implications of domestic drone use is growing, reports the Washington Times. From the report: “This week, Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and former judge, will introduce the Preserving American Privacy Act, which sets strict limits on when, and for what purpose, law enforcement agencies and other entities can use unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.”