Europe’s silence on US drone targeted killings

The following is excerpted from a new briefing written by Nathalie Van Raemdonck of Istituto Affari Internazionali‘Vested Interest or Moral Indecisiveness? Explaining the EU’s Silence on the US Targeted Killing Policy in Pakistan’ explores the US policy of targeted killing and the EU’s (lack of) response. 

Click to download full briefing

When the United States and the European Union committed to cooperating more closely in the fight against terrorism in 2004, they took special care to emphasise that they would act in keeping with the rule of law and international law.  Accordingly, the EU has an obligation in this engagement to examine those practices – including drone strikes – that raise serious concerns as to their  compatibility with international law, and to ask the US for more information about the specifics of targeted killing.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have reminded the European Commission of this obligation with parliamentary questions, requesting the EU to ask the US for the legal basis of this tactic. On 16 January 2012, a written declaration was issued by a group of MEPs urging the EU to commit to ensuring that states publish their criteria for combat drone operations, and in the event of unlawful killing, measures be taken against the perpetrators.

However, neither the European Commission in the form of the High Representative (who is also the Commission’s Vice President) nor the Council have thus far released any statements on this subject. This is striking, as the Council has been quite vocal on the matter on other occasions, notably on the targeted killings carried out by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

When confronted with this discrepancy, EU officials vaguely reply that the European Council has been in an ongoing debate with the US about how to forge a durable framework to combat terrorism within the rule of law since 2004. Yet, no opinions are expressed on the legality of the practice, and no statements have been made by EU officials on future developments. Apparently questions are being asked on the lack of transparency of this tactic, but no publicly known results have so far been shown.

It is not only the EU institutions that have failed to make their voice heard on the issue of drone strikes. The member states have generally followed a similar pattern. Nonetheless, while very few words have been uttered by individual countries, the positions of at least some EU member states can be gauged by their actions.

Germany, for instance, has been refusing to provide the US with intelligence that would lead to the killing of suspected terrorists since a 2010 drone attack in Pakistan killed a German citizen, who was an Islamist but no militant. The Germans have since agreed to provide the Americans with information “for intelligence purposes only” that can be used exclusively to arrest suspects, since the German government does not want to be perceived by the public opinion as being co-responsible for US targeted killings.

On the opposite end to Germany, one can perhaps put the United Kingdom. Although six British nationals having been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, the British government has continued to provide the US military and the CIA with support and intelligence. The Foreign Office has said in the past that it was “looking into the reports” of the killings, but so far none of these deaths have been investigated by UK authorities.  The UK is itself using armed drones in Afghanistan. Just like the US, the UK releases little information about the way in which these drones are used.

Clear-cut opinions on the US’ use of targeted killing have not been voiced by any of the member states. In spite of scant evidence, it is safe to say that member states’ sensitivity towards the issue of targeted killings varies considerably. This seems to have resulted in a sort of tacit agreement not to raise the issue, not only with the US but also within the EU.  There are a number of possible reasons why the EU has kept silent on the US policy of targeted killings in Pakistan.

One interpretation is that it is an ”eloquent” silence, in that EU member states prefer not to bother the US by questioning a practice which, however controversial for their values, is not considered fundamentally opposed to their interests. To a certain extent, this interpretation is persuasive, and yet it does not completely explain why the EU has on other occasions expressed itself quite critically against targeted killings, most notably those operated by Israeli forces against Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Another interpretation of the EU’s silence on the American use of targeted killing points to the lack of consensus among its member states. As we have seen, Germany refuses to provide any information that can lead to a targeted killing, while the UK is apparently an advocate of the use of drones for targeted killing itself (although only in Afghanistan’s territory). In such a context, where some member states are willing to consider targeted killing methods while others do not desire this evolution at all, the EU has no incentive to forge a common position on US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Another possible reason for the EU’s tacit approval of the US’ targeted killing in Pakistan concerns the increasing European interest in UAV’s. The ongoing struggle for the European drone market makes it difficult for European governments to criticise the US. With France and Italy attempting to arm their drones and the UK currently already using armed drones, they have no interest in criticising a tactic that they will be employing, or in the case of UK, are already employing, although in a legally less controversial manner.

Other EU countries have actually bought their own drones from the US, arguably a powerful disincentive to criticise the American’s use of their drones. The US government, for its part, is comfortable with providing its European allies with drones so as to ease the burden on its own forces in Afghanistan.  The US is also hoping that the use of drones by the EU countries will pave the way for global standards, allowing drones to be used in all airspace.

Another reason why the EU is keeping its mouth shut is because it
wants the insurgency in the tribal region on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to end. Since European forces are present in Afghanistan within the framework of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), EU countries have their own interest in condoning these tactics. In addition, since they are not involved in any such operation, they cannot be accused of playing any role in targeted killing (according to this view, the Europeans are content with letting the US do the “dirty work”). Even though the CIA’s use of targeted killings in Pakistan can hardly be defined as in keeping with IHL, as long as the tactic keeps balancing on the edge of illegitimacy and there is no considerable public outcry, there is no disadvantage for the EU to remain silent.

Does the EU’s silence thus flow from its vested interests, or is it a consequence of its lack of vigour and decisiveness? From the above, we can tell that one realistic interpretation is that EU member states have deliberately decided not to talk about targeted killings in Pakistan because of their multiple interests in condoning the tactic.

But it is as possible that the EU is simply reluctant to start any action on the US drone strikes out of lack of moral vigour. Were it to speak up and pose unpleasant questions to the US, then it would open a potentially acrimonious dispute with the US. The lack of consensus within the EU can also be added here. In this interpretation the Union is silent not because it has decided so, but because it is unable to forge a common position.

Even though the analysis of the US’ targeted killing tactic makes it clear that it is a legally and morally controversial practice, it is possible that the EU finds the advantages of avoiding the subject to be greater than those of living up to its moral obligation of urging the US to comply with international law. This choice might, at best, be defined as prudent, but it could also result in a backlash.

Apart from moral and legal considerations, addressing the issue could in fact benefit the EU. Since the UK is also employing targeted killing and other member states such as France and Italy seem eager to join the bandwagon of using armed drones, it would be useful for the EU to establish a framework, together with the US, in which these targeted killings are transparent, legal and effective in a counterterrorism strategy. Even if these are very uncomfortable issues to discuss, there are serious hiatuses in the US’ unofficial policy of targeted killing, which might set precedents for EU member states. Since it does not seem like the US is about to reduce its use of drones in Pakistan, this is an issue that must be addressed sooner or later.

Leave a Reply