Defending the Drones

The latest issue of Chatham House magazine The World Today,  has a defence of the use of armed drones entitled ‘Drone Attacks: The ‘Secret’ Matrix’ by Amitai Etzioni, Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University.   Etzionoi  graciously acknowledges that there is criticism of the use of drones  but feels that these critics “pay little attention to the fact that the use of drones is subject to close oversight.”     This oversight includes a scoring system – the secret matrix of the title – which is used to determine whether a drone attack should take place.  Thus: 

A scoring system is used to evaluate potential targets. Low scores are given to high-value targets. High scores are allotted to civilians known not to be involved in acts of terror or insurgency, say a spouse. Also the number of civilians present affects the score. The higher the total score, the less likely the hit will be approved.   The way this scoring system works is illustrated by one strike that was aborted and one that was authorised. When a predator drone detected three militants planting an improvised explosive device in a road in Afghanistan on February 17, the strike was aborted after the drone’s cameras revealed children in the area. However, Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Taliban in Pakistan, was considered an asset of such high value that the presence of his wife and father-in-law were not enough to abort a strike that killed all three on August 5 last year.

What Etzioni doesn’t acknowledge is that the trouble with a ‘scoring system’ like this is that there is no referee or judge to adjudicate the score – one side decides in secret what the score is. 

Another part of the oversight that Etzioni hails is the fact that the US “often”  (shoudn’t that be ‘always’?) seeks the approval of the sovereign nations in which the drone attack is taking place.     However as Philip Alston writes in his recent report to the UN Human Rights Council:

The proposition that a State may consent to the use of force on its territory by another State is not legally controversial.  But while consent may permit the use of force, it does not absolve either of the concerned States from their obligations to abide by human rights law and IHL with respect to the use of lethal force against a specific person. The consenting State’s responsibility to protect those on its territory from arbitrary deprivation of the right to life applies at all times.  A consenting State may only lawfully authorize a killing by the targeting State to the extent that the killing is carried out in accordance with applicable IHL or human rights law.

Finally, in relation to oversight, the author suggests that as the US was attacked om September the 11th, they are ‘justified’ under Article 51 of the UN Charter in targeted assassinations as “the US is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces”.

In his final paragraphs, Amitai Etzioni, dismisses in a rather peremptory way, the responsibility for killing civilians arguing that “the main fault lies with militants.”

If this is a representative summary of arguments in support of continuing drone strikes, they are shockingly shallow and ill-thought through.  The sooner drone strikes are consigned to history along with mustard gas and anti-personnel mines the better.

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