Review of the Year Part 1: Drones and the Law

Arguments relating to the legality of armed drones have raged since the very first Predator strike.  However, over the past year, the legal arguments have emerged out of the pages of academic journals and obscure conference rooms and entered the mainstream and indeed, the courtroom.  In the first of our reviews of the year we look back at what has happened in relation to legal arguments of the use of drones. Read more

A challenge to drone apologists – where is your evidence?

Over the past few week there has been increasing attention to the issues raised by the growing use of armed unmanned drones. As protests at factories and bases have taken place, newspapers have begun to editorialize, politicians have formed committees to investigate and legal action is being undertaken.

Amidst these positive moves there are those of course who would dismiss concerns about drone strikes and remote warfare. Earlier this month Reuters published an Op-Ed piece in response to the Stanford  & NYU Law Schools report ‘Living Under Drones, which investigated US drone strikes in Pakistan. Read more

Are drones compatible with the idea of just war?

This is an edited version of an article by US Catholic theologians Tobias L. Winright and Mark J. Allman that first appeared in the 18th August 2012 edition of the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet  ( as Obama’s drone wars: a case to answer.  Recalling that Barack Obama spelt out his commitment to the just war tradition at the outset of his presidency, Winright and Allman, reflect on whether the growing use of armed drones is in fact compatible with the just war tradition.  Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers. Read more

CodePink’s Drone Summit

Over the weekend Codepink, CCR and Reprieve hosted an international summit on drone warfare  in Washington DC.  Unfortunately we were not able to attend but did take part ‘virtually’ via twitter and livestream feed.

Lots of videos and more from the sessions will be posted soon on their new Drones Watch website.  However one of the highlights of the event, a speech by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, one of the few journalists to travel to countries where the covert drone war is playing out, is already available thanks to Kevin Gosztola, and well worth watching (see Kevin’s blog post here)

Drone Summit participants outside U.S. Supreme Court

Oppostion as CIA seeks expansion of drone strikes

Expanding drone strikes

The Washington Post reported this week that the CIA is seeking to expand its use of drone strikes in Yemen.   According to the report, the CIA is currently “limited” within Yemen to using drone strikes against known individuals on a targeted kill list.  However it now is seeking permission from the National Security Council (Chaired  by President Obama) to launch drone strikes when intelligence shows what is called  the “telltale signature of al-Qaeda activity”.  These so-called ‘signature’ strikes (as opposed to ‘personality’ strikes) are based on intelligence about vehicle movements, communications, movements in and out of a particular building or compound, and patterns of behavior.

It should be noted that in Yemen, as opposed to Pakistan, US military forces such as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are also involved in launching attacks against suspected al Qaeda targets and these forces may well already have such “permission”.

Of course the whole idea that the US can grant itself “permission” and “authority” to attack either known individuals associated with al Qaeda or those suspected of being involved, anywhere in the world, at any time has no basis in international law as many have repeated made clear.

This week Human Rights Watch (HRW) has again challenged the CIA’s use of drone strikes.  In a  speech at Harvard Law School on April 10, 2012. entitled “CIA and the Rule of Law” the CIA’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, said the agency would implement its authority to use force “in a manner consistent with the … basic principles” of the laws of war.  James Ross legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch said

“When the CIA general counsel says that the agency need only act in ‘a manner consistent’ with the ‘principles’ of international law, he is saying the laws of war aren’t really law at all…  The Obama administration should make it clear that there’s no ‘CIA exception’ for its international legal obligations.”

HRW argues that command of all US armed drone strikes should be transferred to US military forces rather than remain in the hands of the secretive and unaccountable CIA.

Others argue that the drone strikes should cease altogether and accuse the US of participating in war crimes.  Drone protestors attempted to deliver a war crimes indictment at Hancock Air Force base this weekend on Earth Day were preemptively arrested by police two blocks from the entrance.   According to the groups press release, those arrested included an 87 year old woman in a wheelchair, parents (accompanying their children), a member of the press, and the group’s attorney Ron Van Norstrand. Cameras, camcorders and phones were confiscated by the Sheriff’s Department.   Six other people, did manage to reach the gate of the base, where they were also arrested.  The indictment can be read here.

Meanwhile General Atomics, maker of the Reaper and Predator, have announced they have designed a significant upgrade for their drones which will enable them to expand to almost double the amount of time they can stay in the air.  The company is proposing extending the wings, adding additional fuel pods and strengthening the landing gear in order to enable the drone to stay aloft for up to 42 hours nonstop.  General Atomics says the upgrades can be done to current drone in service ‘in the field’, but as yet it is not known if this proposal will be taken up by US and British military who have armed drones in active military service.

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. Read more