Are US Drone Attacks War Crimes?
Not a day goes past without civilian being killed by drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. Drones are the US Government’s new weapon of choice. The use of drones has expanded dramatically in Pakistan, a country with which we are not at war.
Like a playstation game in a teenager’s bedroom, the CIA is controlling this modern warfare from command centres in Langley and just outside Las Vegas. From there, thousands of miles away from the battlefield, they target sites and cause great human carnage at the blink of an eyelid.
A New York Times op-ed last year, citing the well-publicised casualty figures, suggested that the death toll of 700 civilians in 2010 and 14 terrorist leaders represented a ratio of 50 civilians for every militant target. Counter-insurgency expert, David Kilcullen, called for an end to the strikes at the time.
The US response to questions by international lawyers and human rights advocates about the legality of drone attacks is characteristically opaque. Harold Koh, Obama’s legal adviser had this to say:
“With respect to the subject of targeting, which has been much commented on in the media and international legal circles, obviously there are limits to what I can say publicly. What I can say is that it is the considered view of this administration, and it has certainly been my experience during my time is legal adviser, that US targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war. Some have argued that the use of lethal force against specific individuals fails to provide adequate process and thus constitutes unlawful extrajudicial killing. But a state that is engaged in armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets or legal process before the state may use lethal force”.
Phillip Alston in a UN report noted that “When we decide to target these individuals, the international law of armed conflict applies. That limits the question of who can be targeted, the circumstances, and requires the principle of proportionality to be applied”. Put simply, it posits the question—how many other people can you kill while at the same time trying to get that target.
The United States has not provided any evidence that it is systematically examining this question when it deploys these weapons in more and more countries. And it has not provided the public any information about the number of casualties vs militant deaths. Until it provides some information about its practices, it is very hard to judge whether these attacks are legal under international humanitarian law.
Then there is the question of the role of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA, as is now very clearly known, is essentially responsible for the operation of the drone program in Pakistan. It is not at all clear what rules govern the CIA.
Mr Phillip Alston reserves particular criticism for CIA-directed drone attacks, which he said had resulted in the deaths of "many hundreds" of civilians.
"Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries," the report says.
CIA members "are not lawful combatants and their participation in killing persons - even in an armed conflict - is a crime." US military forces may be "lawful combatants in Pakistan" only with the permission of the Pakistani government. This is not the case.
It is worth recalling here that we are not at war with Pakistan or Yemen, so the use of lethal force with drones is in fact illegal.
Drone attacks outside traditional battlefields for extrajudicial executions are prohibited under domestic and international laws.
Taken together, these are the facts:
· thousands of civilians have been killed,
· there is limited information about the drone programme coming from the US Government, or the Russian and Chinese Governmentw which are also deplying thse weapons.
· Pakistan has withdrawn permission to the US to target its citizens
· Intelligence agencies do not operate within a framework which requires compliance with humanitarian law.
· There is no international control of these weapons in any international agreement/Convention/Treaty.
This raises a serious question: do the remote-control drone killings carry a risk of becoming war crimes? Is it time we developed some international standards to control the use of these weapons in armed conflict as well as in contexts outside the parameters of “armed conflict”?
I will update this page with news reports of drone attacks and commentary on drones from time to time