Drones obliterate shades of gray between militants and civilians

Killing someone because they looked like they were “up to no good” doesn’t really pass legal muster.

Under the Obama administration, the CIA drone program uses what they call signature strikes, as you’ve no doubt heard. Usually, the term “signature” has a positive connotation, as in a characteristic that distinguishes one from others. But, to the CIA, it just means that any military-age males in an area it has decided is a strike zone are combatants. In other words, they look like they’re “up to no good” and deserve to die.

In September, as you may be aware, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law released a landmark report titled Living Under Drones. In one section it reveals the sheer simple-mindedness of dividing individuals under surveillance into either civilians or militants. In fact, most of those labeled militants should be painted in shades of gray. (Emphasis added.)

Major media outlets in the US, Europe, and Pakistan that report on drone strikes tend to divide all those killed by drone strikes into just two categories: civilians or “militants.” This reflects and reinforces a widespread assumption and misunderstanding that all “militants” are legitimate targets for the use of lethal force, and that any strike against a “militant” is lawful. This binary distinction. … distinction is extremely problematic, however, from a legal perspective.

[First] use of the word “militant” to describe individuals killed by drones often obscures whether those killed are in fact lawful targets under the international legal regime governing the US operations in Pakistan. It is not necessarily the case that any person who might be described as a “militant” can be lawfully intentionally killed.

Even if one buys into the drone program, he or she must acknowledge that

… in order for an intentional lethal targeting to be lawful, a fundamental set of legal tests must be satisfied. For example … the targeted individual must either be directly participating in hostilities with the US (international humanitarian law) or posing an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent (international human rights law).

But that’s only the beginning of the criteria that should be used in determining if someone is Predator or Reaper fodder.

[First] members of militant groups with which the US is not in an armed conflict are not lawful targets, absent additional circumstances … Further, simply being suspected of some connection to a “militant” organization—or, under the current administration’s apparent definition, simply being a male of military age in an area where “militant” organizations are believed to operate–is not alone sufficient to make someone a permissible target for killing.

… Second, the label “militant” also fails to distinguish between so-called “high-value” targets with alleged leadership roles in Al Qaeda or [the Taliban], and low-level alleged insurgents with no apparent … means of posing a serious or imminent threat to the US.  National security analysts—and the White House itself—have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged “militants.”

To make matters worse, along with the CIA failing to properly discriminate about who it attacks

… Often, little to no information is presented to support the claim … that a certain number of those killed were “militants.” And, it is entirely unclear what, if any, investigations are carried out by the Pakistani or US governments to determine who and how many people were killed.

The drone program was key in preventing many of us from throwing our support behind President Obama in the election. In future posts, we’ll examine further atrocities within the atrocity that the drone program as a whole constitutes.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Categories: War/Security

Tagged as: ,

1 reply »

  1. As a member of the first active IR UAV battery in the British Army (22nd Gibraltar Battery, 32nd Hvy Regt RA) I know how the detection process works. The UAVs I worked on were not weaponised, but the soldiers I served with then still work on them now.

    I can guarantee you that the numbers you’re referencing are better than any other indiscriminate explosive payload method than any other in the history of warfare. This is an amazing feat considering the new realm of combat where the codes of conduct set by the Geneva Convention are only upheld by one side. To kill that one leader 60 years ago remotely would have cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians – and be considered a worthy cause, too.

    Compared with the fire bombings of Dresden, the Dam Buster missions and similar methods used in World War Two, drones can perhaps be considered the best piece of military hardware ever created. But no matter how advanced or sophisticated the equipment is it still requires a human touch and as we know all too well, to err is human. So, do we stop all strikes of every kind and allow plots, ambushes and attacks to happen and react to them only? Whilst policing forces are trained the forces there should be given the right to defend themselves in the manner that has happened on a basic level since a man first hit another man with a stick – proactively. (Aside: I don’t think we should be there in the first place, but we are and we must deal with that.)

    The choice to press a button or pull an artillery piece cord or squeeze a trigger is the same. And whilst you indiscriminately infer that everyone in the CIA is a murderer you have to realise that mistakes will always be made no matter what branch of government you are condemning the people pressing, pulling and squeezing have to live with those decisions for the rest of their lives. Right or wrong the decision making process is the kind of judgement I hope you’ll never have to make and guarantee you will never understand unless you’ve done it yourself. So until you do have to make that decision (and I sincerely hope you don’t), feel free to complain, but please take the global facts and the history of warfare into consideration.