Monday, July 30, 2012

Drone killings not justified

Last February 6, 2012, the Philippine military reported killing a senior Abu Sayyaf commander, a Singaporean guerilla and 12 terrorist followers after a surgical air attack on their suspected base in Parang, Sulu. The attack was so precise that it lasted only a few seconds. To date, however, the bodies of the slain terrorists have not been recovered.

Speculations were that U.S. Predator drones were used in the Sulu air strike, which was immediately denied by the Philippine Air Force. Four months earlier, PAF planes were also sent against terrorist fortifications in Zamboanga Sibugay after the Al-Barka massacre that killed 14 Marines. Nothing came out of that daytime raid, compared to the night-time Sulu strike which was carried out with uncanny accuracy.

Could it be that drones and Hellfire missiles are now being launched by U.S. visiting troops in the war against terror in Mindanao?
US Air Force predator unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan. Photo by DTN News.
Click link, to view "Predator Drones." 
There’s a raging debate going on regarding the moral and legal justification of the United States in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, in its war against terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and parts of Northern Africa where Al Qaeda operatives are known to operate. U.S. President Barack Obama was censured in an article in Esquire by Tom Junod for the administration’s policy of targeted killings of suspected militants.

So far, drones have become the weapon of choice of the United States military. Since being able to weaponize drones, the U.S. military now has the capability to hunt down terrorists without sending its navy and marines. All the military needs is a PlayStation warfare that can be operated thousands of miles away. The objective of the U.S. military is to convert 45 per cent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones.

According to Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, U.S. drone attacks may constitute war crimes since many of these attacks take place in areas not recognized as being in armed conflict, and some of them are strikes on rescuers who are helping those injured by the drone attack. Philip Alston, also a United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, considers drone killings as summary executions. 

Here are some disturbing facts about drone assassinations:

• The U.S. military has used drones to kill thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. So effective are drones against the war against terrorists that U.S. President Obama has fallen in love with them. Drones have become central to the Obama administration’s way of waging war, with the huge potential to take out those guilty of conducting terrorism while limiting U.S. casualties.

• But for every “high-value” target killed by drones, there’s a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The government of Pakistan stopped allowing the U.S. military to use its borders for bringing supplies to Afghanistan after a deadly drone strike killed about 42 civilian Pakistanis in March 2011. Only recently after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered an apology to the Pakistani government was the U.S. military again allowed passage to Afghanistan through the Pakistan borders.

• The truth is, U.S. civilian and military employees regularly target and fire lethal unmanned drone guided missiles at people across the world. As a consequence, thousands have been assassinated. Hundreds of those killed were civilians. Some of those killed were rescuers and mourners.

• According to The Wall Street Journal (November 2011), most of the time the United States did not even know the identities of people being killed by drones. Majority of those killed in such strikes are not important insurgent commanders but rather low-level fighters, together with a small number of civilians.

Drone killings are, in reality, summary executions and widely regarded as potential war crimes by international lawyers. A decade ago, the U.S. criticised Israel for such “extrajudicial killings” but now claims self-defense in the war against Al Qaeda.

The United States government justifies the use of drones as an act of self-defense against Al Qaeda, a necessary tool for its war on terror wherever terrorists are. This argument is a spill over from the 9/11 attacks and is being used by the U.S. government to justify killings in a global war on terror. But is this a valid legal justification?

If drones limit the cost of war, especially casualties on the part of the U.S. military, what could be wrong with the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles? The reality on the ground is that even with precision-guided munitions, drones could still cause a lot of collateral damage. And it’s the innocent civilian population that is taking the brunt of drone attacks rather than the few terrorist ringleaders. Just because individuals can be targeted without incurring troop casualties does not imply drones ought to be used.
Protesters demand grounding of drones by the U.S. military. Photo courtesy of
rjosef. Click  link to view "Predator Drones: Joking over innocent deaths?"
At the centrepiece of the U.S. justification for the use of drones are the principles of distinction and proportionality, which under international humanitarian law (IHL) are aimed in seeking a balance between humanitarian concerns and military objectives. In other words, IHL expects states to differentiate between civilians and combatants, and to ensure that the incidental damage to civilians be proportional to the military advantage.

These IHL principles are being twisted by the U.S. military to support their argument that the non-belligerent population is not insulated from drone attacks as long as the military gain does not exceed the injury to civilians and their property. Thus, the incidental or unintentional killing of civilians is not proscribed under international law. But, harm to civilians that clearly exceeds the anticipated military advantage—that is, disproportionate harm—is proscribed.

But the problem lies in the determination of military advantage over civilian casualties, a very subjective calculus. Unless civilian fatalities are the result of intentional targeting —where advance information would show the likelihood of such an outcome—and those fatalities exceed military benefit, then the attacker is not in violation of international law. 

Retired high-ranking military and CIA veterans have challenged the legality and efficacy of drone killings. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright squarely denies the legality of drone warfare by saying that “drones are assassination machines, used for targeted assassination, extrajudicial ultimate death for people who have not been convicted of anything.”

Drone strikes are also counterproductive, according to Robert Grenier, former Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center, who wrote, “One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in the future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them.”

Emerging technologies such as drones and cyber-combat missions are reshaping the future of war. With a video joystick, bombs could now be launched thousands of miles away. The rapid proliferation of drones, beyond their own ethical and legal quandaries, makes violence and aggression so much easier and cheaper to perpetrate and therefore so much more likely.

For drone operators, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up with. It’s similar to operating PlayStation warfare. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – amounting to what critics of drones call as  desensitizing the taking of human life. A target of a drone strike is called by the military a “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed. “Bug splat” also happens to be the name of a children’s video game.

No wonder the bodies of the targeted terrorists by the Philippine military in Parang, Sulu have not been recovered. They must have been crushed into “bug splats.”

No comments:

Post a Comment