Drones Come From the Sky, But Leave the Heavy Footprint of War on the Communities that they Target

(Originally Published at Irishleftreview.org in February 2014)

Barrack Obama was seen by many of the liberals of the world as the only hope for a just and ethical American government. He was seen as the archetypal liberal; educated, young, and more importantly, not a Republican. Not long after his election however, we quickly came to learn that it would be business as usual for the White House, and more. Under the Obama administration we have seen a disastrous foreign policy in which any person deemed a terrorist or a threat to the national security of the United States, or their interests, can be summarily and extrajudically assassinated. One of the predominant methods of carrying out these assassinations is via drone strike. With what has been essentially an onslaught of drone strikes, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, the UN has begun to investigate the legality of these strikes. This investigation has thus far been part of the basis of two reports which were issued in September of last year.

The first report, Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, dealt with the issue of drone strikes within the framework of international law. The Special Rapporteur noted that, “drones are here to stay”, and that they are not necessarily illegal weapons. However, the Rapporteur also took note of the fact that drones make it far easier to kill a suspect as opposed to trying to capture them. He also noted that the sheer proliferation of the use of armed drones “may lower social barriers in society against the deployment of lethal force and result in attempts to weaken the relevant legal standards”. Added to this is the lack of transparency regarding the legal framework being used by the White House to target suspects for assassination. When combined with the relative safety with which a drone can be operated, the report states that domestic or political constraints on their use can easily be “reduce[d] or eliminated”. This is precisely how the Obama administration has promoted the use of drones; that they are surgical in their precision, clean, and more importantly, keep American lives out of harm’s way. When we dig a little deeper, the truth is much more frightful and perilous.

The exact determination of the criteria needed to target someone for assassination is not shared with the public. Nonetheless, certain details are known. According to Jeremy Scahill, in the closing days of the Bush administration, the CIA began targeting suspects for assassination on the basis of “patterns of life rather than specific intelligence”. If a person adhered to a certain list of “signatures” that the agency had devised, this was enough to make them a target. One of these “signatures” could be as little as being a military aged male in a particular region of the globe. Being an imminent threat or being involved in plotting against the United States was also not a prerequisite for being targeted. The mere potential to commit acts of terrorism against the United States or its interests became enough to warrant death. The Obama administration embraced this method of warmongering with gusto. In the first 10 months of taking office, Obama launched more drone strikes than Bush Jr. had in the previous 8 years. Obama personally signs off on each assassination on what is called “Terror Tuesdays”, where he and his advisors go over a list of suspects and decide who is to live and who is to die.

In spite of what the White House and the Pentagon may think about the effectiveness of drone strikes, it is clear that they do two things: They violate international law and they encourage terrorism. That both of these statements are truisms is unimportant. It is important though to examine them in greater detail.  As to the latter, in an interview with the journal Foreign Affairs early last year, General Stanley McChrystal made the same point that is made above; that drones strikes seem to carry little risk with maximum benefits. But this does not give the wider view of the larger consequences of such actions, pointing out that, “at the receiving end, it feels like war”.  He further stated that if drones were “used carelessly”, which he believes isn’t the case, “then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with”. Similarly, in an appearance in front of a United States Senate committee in April of last year, Yemeni native Farea Al-Muslimi related the story of how six days previous to his appearance in front of the committee, his village had been the victim of a drone strike. Ominously, but not unsurprisingly, he stated that, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America”. The UN report already mentioned also makes this point. The Special Rapporteur writes that, “drones come from the sky, but leave the heavy footprint of war on the communities that they target”.

In terms of international law, that targeting suspects for assassination is a clear violation of international law is explicitly stated in both UN reports. In the report already mentioned, Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, it is made quite clear that in some cases suspects who are referred to as terrorists or militants “are in truth protected civilians”. Targeting a person for assassination “may not be done pre-emptively to prevent a threat from arising in the future”, and that, “a state of war or threat of war, may not be invoked as a justification of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and that the prohibition is to prevail over decrees issued by governmental authority”. In terms of so-called signature strikes, the report states “it is clearly unlawful”. The second UN report, Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, largely covers the same ground in terms of the inherent rights of persons. As before, it takes stock of the framework of international law which “prohibits almost any counter-terrorism operation that has the infliction of deadly force as its sole or main purpose”. That drone strikes are “rarely lawful outside of armed conflict” is easily skirted over by the White House when it declares that the “world is a battlefield”. Thus, as the report notes, “the United States does not appear to recognise any express territorial limitation on the applicability of the targeting rules of international humanitarian law”. Simply put, anyone who the White House and Pentagon believe to be a terrorist, militant, or a threat, can be targeted for death.

Drones are indeed here to stay, and it also appears that their use to assassinate suspects is also here to stay. With the “War on Terror” set to last at least another decade according to a report in The Washington Post last year, we should expect to see a growing “kill list” and ever more civilian casualties. Although drone warfare was not initiated by Obama, he has codified and systematised the process where he has the final say on who is to live or die. Remember, this also includes U.S. citizens, such as suspected terrorists Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were targeted for assassination with the President’s approval. With the UN set to issue a final report on the subject of drone strikes and extrajudicial assassination later this year, the U.S. jaunt across the Middle East will carry on in violation of international law and basic human rights and dignity. Unless the warnings of McChrystal and Al-Muslimi are taken heed of, the consequences for the United States, and its allies, are likely to be horrific and come in the form of further terrorist attacks. Again, largely truism, but truisms that go either ignored or unknown.