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

Legal action initiated in UK as drone strikes continue in Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza

It was announced yesterday that a legal proceedings will be initiated in the High Court in London to challenge British complicity in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Reprieve together with Leigh Day & Co, acting on behalf of the family of Malik Daud Khan, one of 40 people killed in a CIA drone strike on a tribal gathering in North Waziristan in March 2011, are suing Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, William Hague over British intelligence agency support for the strikes. Richard Stein, Head of Human Rights at law firm Leigh Day & Co said:

“We believe that there is credible, unchallenged evidence that the Secretary of State is operating a policy of passing intelligence to officials or agents of the US Government; and that he considers such a policy to be “in ‘strict accordance’ with the law”. If this is the case the Secretary of State has misunderstood one or more of the principles of international law governing immunity for those involved in armed attacks on behalf of a state and/or the lawfulness of such attacks; and his policy, if implemented, involves the commission of serious criminal offences by employees of GCHQ or by other officials or agents of the UK Government in the UK.”

So far the Foreign Office has yet to respond. Meanwhile drone strikes have continued in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past weekend.

On March 9th between 8 and 12 people (reports vary) were killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan.  Yemeni officials and local witnesses also reported US drone strikes on Friday in Baydar, in the South of Yemen and again on Sunday in Jabal Khanfar. US military sources however refused to comment on these drone strikes .

At least 20 Palestinians, including a 12-year old boy have also been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza over the weekend. On Friday Israel carried out the ‘targeted killing’ of Zuhair Al-Qaissi, the leader of the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC). Two other people were also killed in what witnesses said was a drone strike although this has not been possible to confirm. Responding to the Israeli targeted killing, rockets were fired at Israel which led to further Israeli airstrikes, which are continuing.  Israeli drones are reported to be carrying out some of the airstrikes.

Teenagers and ‘blobs on a screen’ die as the drone wars continues to develop

16 year-old Abdul-Rahman, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a 'military-age man' according to the US, killed in drone strike in Yemen

The drone wars continue to develop with strikes taking place over the past ten days in Yemen, Somalia and Libya as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The RAF reported, in a unsurprisingly low-key way, that the 200th British drone strike had taken place in Afghanistan at the end of September, while according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) the 300th CIA drone strike in Pakistan took place last week in South Waziristan.  Amidst the frenzy of reporting around the death of Mummar Gaddafi this week, the Pentagon revealed that the US had carried out 145 drones strikes in Libya.   Details about the strikes in Yemen and Somalia are hard to come by and any reports are hard to confirm. In a revealing article Nick Turse has documented the spread of US bases connected with drone wars and suggests there are more than fifty such facilities around the world.

But statistics do not tell the whole story.  Occasionally we are given glimpses into the human impact of the drone wars.  On 14th October a US drone strike in Yemen killed nine people including 16 year-old Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki who was himself executed in a targeted drone strike last month.  According to a report in the LA Times the al-Awlaki family said Abdul-Rahman was only going to dinner and was not involved in terrorism. “His Facebook page shows a typical kid,” the family said.  “A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.”   In response a US official simply said the teenager was “a military-aged male travelling with a High Value Target”.   Glenn Greewald’s article on the killing of the 16-year old teenager and the media’s silence on the matter deserves to be read.

Two other victims of drone strikes also received attention last week. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Ben Rast, 23 were US servicemen mistakenly killed in a US drone strike in April 2011.  While the 390-page Pentagon report has yet to be released, the LA Times states that the report blames “poor communications, faulty assumptions and a  lack of overall common situational awareness.”

Jerry Smith, father of one of the victims spoke to the LA Times after he had been briefed by US military officers and shown video images of  the attack.  According to the LA Times:

Smith was shown video images taken by the Predator, he said. He saw “three blobs in really dark shadows” — his son, Rast and the other Marine mistakenly identified by the Predator crew as Taliban. He said it was impossible to see uniforms or weapons.  “You couldn’t even tell they were human beings — just blobs,”  he said.

So much for the famed accuracy and  incredible hi-resolution images that drones are supposed to provide.  The victims were ‘blobs on a screen’.

But it’s not just on the ‘battlefield’ that the drone wars are being expanded.  Behind the scenes, funds are being pumped into further research, development and training.  Work is being undertaken to ensure that drones can fly longer to further develop their persistence; to weaponize current non-armed drones such as Fire scout and  to develop technology that will allow new drones to be built in the future.  BAE Systems work with ten universities to develop this ‘flapless’ drone technology demonstrator called Demon (video) is just one example.   In addition the UK MoD has recently announced a new five-year programme to fund research and development into drones called the UAS Pipeline (pdf).   With regard to training the UK Empire Test Pilot School is to introduce a course to train UAV pilots while in the US the air force is investigating what is the ‘right stuff’ for a drone pilot.

Amidst all this depressing news it was good to see David Cortwright, of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, forthright piece for CNN this week.  Let’s give him the last word:

“The development of drone  weapons raises profound moral questions about the future of war. U.S. officials  are fond of drone weapons because they are inexpensive and seem to make the waging of war less costly. They allow leaders to conduct military operations without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers or drawing public disapproval. They give the false impression that war can be waged with fewer costs and risks. Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is dangerous and morally troubling. It lowers the political threshold of war. It threatens to weaken  the moral presumption against the use of armed force.  The use of drone aircraft perpetuates the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism and resolving political differences. We should know better by now.”