Drones: license to kill?


After more than a decade of unchallenged deployment of Predator drones to kill suspected enemies, US President Barack Obama recently signed off an executive order to address civilian casualties in US operations involving the use of force.

“The [policy] is based on our national interests, our values and our legal obligations,” says the executive order issued on July 1. “This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person”, it says however.

Through the order, Obama has tried to provide a legal cover and justification for drone strikes, which have largely been considered illegal by international human rights activists.

The US administration has also tried to address the issue of civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes meant for targeting terrorists. There has been widespread criticism of the killing of innocent civilians in such strikes, and the policy suffers from several inherent flaws and legal implications.

Firstly, these attacks constitute blatant violation of the sovereignty of other countries. Secondly, the acts also violate the international humanitarian law. Thirdly, you cannot hold the operators of drones responsible for innocent victims.

At least 256 identified civilians have been killed in strikes in Pakistan
In many cases, nobody really knows whether those killed were terrorists or innocent non-combatants. That is why a number of countries including China, Russia, the UN, and human rights organizations have demanded of the US to make public the details of its covert operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

Fourthly, the executive order only mentions the inherent right of self-defense, with no care for international rule of law, human rights, social and political consequences and sovereignty of other countries.

Fifthly, without the permission of the sovereign country and cooperation of local community, it is very difficult to gather precise pre-strike intelligence to distinguish between combatants and non-combatant targets.

These demands surfaced after researchers discovered discrepancy in the data on casualties being released by the US and figures collected by non-governmental organizations. Local government and non-government sources in drone-hit countries also contradict the US figures.

The White House data on strikes outside areas of active hostilities – that include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – mentions 2,372 combatant deaths and 64 to 116 non-combatant deaths in a total of 473 strikes between 2009 and 2015.

But according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), since the launch of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in 2004, between 424 and 966 civilians have been killed in 424 strikes. The total number of people killed is between 2,499 and 4,001. These include 172 to 207 children. Between 1,162 and 1,744 people have been injured in such strikes, according to the BIJ. The bureau looks at media reports and contacts NGOs and its own ground teams for investigation.

At least 256 identified civilians were killed in clandestine drone strikes in Pakistan between 2009 and 2015, according to the BIJ. In one incident, around 40 tribesmen died when a drone hit a tribal Jirga in North Waziristan in 2011. The bureau’s statistics shows that only 84 out of 2,379 deaths have been identified as prime target of drone strikes in Pakistan.

These drone strikes are not only terrorizing civilians, but are also counterproductive in the war on terrorism. Civilian deaths fuel sentiments of revenge, causing more problems for the Pakistani law enforcement agencies who need the support and confidence of local tribesmen.

Terrorists use these deaths to their own advantage, getting the sympathies of the families of the innocent victims. Thus, they find a favourable situation for recruiting young men with vulnerable minds. They manipulate their anger to persuade them to attack Pakistani forces and civilians as well.

Recent research by the human rights organization Reprieve, which assists civilian victims of drone strikes, has found that the US is frequently unable to identify those killed by covert attacks strikes in countries including Pakistan and Yemen.

Reprieve found that while targeting 41 named individuals, US strikes killed 1,147 unknown men, women and children – often leaving the original target still alive.

The new US doctrine of use of forces outside areas of active hostilities also puts in danger international peace, as these drone strikes have no backing of UN Security Council.

Other countries might also carry drone strikes in rival countries, thus starting new armed conflicts in dangerous and sensitive regions like South Asia, where nuclear rivals Pakistan and India have already fought three wars.

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have called such strikes a violation of international laws and human rights. The deaths in such attacks are extra-judicial killings, they say, because the alleged terrorists are not given an opportunity to go through the due process of law.

As pointed out by former ambassador and UN official Ashraf Jehangir Qazi in a recent article, drone operations raise serious questions about the imperative of due process and the provision of relevant and authentic evidence. “Renowned international legal and political commentators describe the use of killer drones as a global assassination programme,” he wrote in Dawn. “A small group of White House advisers reportedly agonise with the president over who should live or die. Such due diligence is duly equated with due process. The issue of collateral damage is technically if inhumanly finessed through computer profiling.”

In short, the US policy of using direct or indirect military force including drones represents a challenge to the international law and global security. It is also potentially jeopardizing for smaller countries by setting a dangerous precedent.