Paddy Ashdown – or Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon – to give him his proper title, former Royal Marine, intelligence service officer and leader of the Liberal Democrats has an opinion piece in the Times entitled ‘If you’re opposed to drones, then think again’ (paywall).
Ashdown rehashes what are probably the top three pro-drone arguments. Firstly that drones are not indiscriminate like cluster munitions so can’t be objected to because they deliver ‘smart’ bombs; if we don’t use drones our citizens and soldiers will be killed; and finally there is nothing new about remote warfare, indeed he suggest “it goes back to the Roman trebuchet.”
We have pointed out the flaws in these arguments many times before and will no doubt have to do so again. The myth of ‘smart’ or ‘precise’ bombing is just that – a myth. It has been well documented that many hundreds of innocent civilians have died in drone strikes in Pakistan alone. Secondly drones are not increasing security just the opposite with, for example, drones proving counter-productive by creating anti-western sentiment. Finally drones are simply not like a roman trebuchet or a cruise missile as Ashdown claims. The ability of drones to loiter for hours, days and weeks looking for ‘targets of opportunity’ makes them intrinsically different from other one-shot remote weapons.
Ashdown however brings two new, rather startling, arguments to bear. Firstly he claims that drones are “democratic” because the very remoteness from the battlefield means that they are “thousands of miles closer to the politicians who have to be accountable.” Let’s leave aside for the moment the inconvenient fact for Ashdown that British drones are actually controlled by RAF pilots sitting in a US base outside Las Vegas, thousands of miles away from Whitehall. The real inconvenient fact is that drones have done completely the opposite to what Ashdown is claiming. Drones have enabled a wholesale expansion of the US extrajudicial targeted killing programme which has killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Yemen for example, countries with which the US is not at war. In addition, the secrecy surrounding the use of drones – in particular the legal justification for the US targeted killing programme and the refusal of the UK MoD to answer basic questions about the day-to-day use of British drones in Afghanistan – means that the use of drones is anything but democratic.
Bizarrely Ashdown recognises that drones have been used extraterritorially, to carry out military operations in countries where lethal force has not been authored by the UN, counter to international law. However he merely says that it is “nothing new,” indeed he revels that he himself took part in a secret British military operation inside Indonesia in the 1960s. As a former UN official one would expect Ashdown to have more regard for international law. And what is worse from a legal point of view – and a key point that he quietly omits – is that these drone strikes are not being aimed at members of a nations armed forces, but rather at non-state actors, a very significant legal difference.
One of the real problems with drones – and an issue that Lord Ashdown simply does not engage with – is that drones lower the threshold when it comes to launching military intervention. The potential of TV shots of grieving families awaiting returning coffins of young men and women sent to fight overseas is a real restraint on political leaders tempted to use lethal military force to ‘solve’ a problem rather than engage in messy political and diplomatic compromises. Take away that potential political cost by using unmanned drones and it makes it much easier to opt for lethal force – a real and significant danger to global peace and security.
Ashdown suggests that no new laws are needed to control drones as the old laws apply. This is perhaps true, but the way in which current international laws as well as human rights are being eroded by drones should at the very least give us all – including Paddy Ashdown –pause for thought.