7.3.2.3 Drone Strikes

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7323.htm)

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones’, can be used for surveillance or to kill people.  America’s use of drone-strikes against suspected terrorists, in Pakistan for example, is a form of assassination.  America is not at war with Pakistan so it is contravening the UN guidelines on the use of drones,[1] although Pakistan was complicit – as revealed by The Washington Post: Secret memos reveal explicit nature of U.S., Pakistan agreement on drones.

Drones are costly but, for a wealthy country like America, affordable.  They change the perception of war into a video game – the operators of such weapons are less aware of the humanity of those they are killing, and the psychology of a video game is to try to get a high score; American pilots were recorded as using the language of computer games on a military video, as revealed by The Guardian article entitled Wikileaks reveals video showing US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians.

There can be no certainty that the people targeted are actually involved in terrorism – particularly in the case of so-called ‘signature strikes’ where people are targeted solely because their behaviour looks suspicious, as described in a Real Clear World article entitled The Drone War Doctrine We Still Don’t Know About.  It is possible to imagine a situation where a baker putting bags of flour into a van could be mistaken for someone packing a van with explosives; he might be killed simply because there would be no way of asking him what he was doing.  And pinpoint accuracy cannot be achieved, partly because of the time lapse due to the distance between the operator and the drone.  It is rarely possible to kill only one person with a bomb.

Innocent civilians are often killed.  In October 2013, the UN reported that there had been 400 civilian deaths from drone-strikes in Pakistan – although America was unrepentant, as reported by the BBC in an article entitled US defends drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.  These deaths cause understandable indignation in the population and other family members; friends and neighbours can become radicalised – becoming terrorists.

Drones recruit more terrorists than they kill – as described in a BBC article, Is Obama’s drone doctrine counter-productive?, citing Yemen-expert Gregory Johnson of Princeton University.  The US ‘kill list’ in the “war against terrorism” grows exponentially, as names are removed from the top of the list whilst new recruits are appended to it as a result of reactions against drone strikes.[2]

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[1] The Interim report to the General Assembly on the use of remotely piloted aircraft in counter-terrorism operations was published on 18 Sept 2013 as section III of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  This report outlines, in para.  24, the criteria for the legality of drone use:

“In a situation qualifying as an armed conflict, the adoption of a pre-identified list of individual military targets is not unlawful; if based upon reliable intelligence it is a paradigm application of the principle of distinction.  Conversely, outside situations of armed conflict, international human rights law prohibits almost any counter-terrorism operation that has the infliction of deadly force as its sole or main purpose (A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, paras.  28 and 32-33).  The threshold question therefore is not whether a killing is targeted, but whether it takes place within or outside a situation of armed conflict …”

This report was available in July 2018 at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/68/389.

In American law, however, the President is permitted to regard any terrorist or potential terrorist as an enemy combatant under the “war against terrorism” legislation: The Authorisation to Use Military Force, which was signed on 18 September 2001, and was available in July 2018 at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-107sjres23enr/pdf/BILLS-107sjres23enr.pdf.

[2] The Oscar-nominated documentary film Dirty Wars revealed that President Obama personally authorised the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which had ever-expanding “kill lists”.  The film was reviewed in an article entitled JSoc: Obama’s secret assassins, which was available in July 2018 at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/03/jsoc-obama-secret-assassins.  Jeremy Scahill also wrote a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, whose website was then at http://dirtywars.org/the-book.