Drone warfare: cost and challenge

First published 20th Oct 2011

The repositioning of the United States' military strategy includes a great expansion in the use of armed drones to attack targets in Pakistan and Yemen. This development raises profound legal and ethical questions including the need to record the casualties of such attacks, argues Paul Rogers in this piece originally published on OpenDemocracy.

Rogers begins by pointing to one significant way in which the US has been intensifying its military activity in the very midst of troop "draw-downs" such as in Afghanistan: 

This is the use of pilotless armed drones. These are employed under CIA command - a procedure chosen because the CIA's rules of engagement are less restrictive then those of the military. The continuous drone-attacks across the border in Pakistan have very destructive human effects that often reach beyond the presumed insurgent targets; the agency claims to have killed around 1,400 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban paramilitaries, but Pakistan sources also (amid a scarcity of precise details) estimate that hundreds of civilians have also died in these operations.

Rogers notes that these attacks have contributed greatly to a marked deterioration in relations between the US and Pakistan and risk greater radicalisation of local people, an effect likely to be repeated wherever they are used, but largely disregarded by the US:

There is every sign, however, that the US regards the use of these new weapons of war as being successful in hitting their enemies without putting their own troops (including aircraft crew) in danger. The effects on non-combatants, and the impact on Pakistani or Yemeni opinion, are largely discounted.

After an overview of their dramatic and continuing rise in deployment by the US, from perhaps 50 in 2010 to around 7,000 in 2011, Rogers welcomes a timely report produced by the legal team of the everycasualty programme at Oxford Research Group (ORG) which looks at the implications of attack drones in the context of casualty recording and the requirements of international law:

The main author of the ORG report, which is launched on 23 June 2011 at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, is the leading international lawyer Susan Breau, professor of international law at Flinders University in Adelaide, with the additional contribution of Rachel Joyce of King's College, London. Breau and Joyce argue convincingly that a number of conventions, charters and international customary humanitarian law combine to provide an international legal obligation on states using armed-drones to respond to certain major consequences of their actions.

These legal documents include the Geneva conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, various United Nations reports and statements, and case law from European and Inter-American human-rights courts.

Rogers concludes by summarising the implications of the report for policymakers and the military:

The key conclusions of Drones Don't Allow Hit and Run are simple - but their implications are huge:

"There is a legal requirement to identify all casualties that result from any drone use, under any and all circumstances”

“The universal human right which specifies that no-one be 'arbitrarily' deprived of his or her life depends on the identity of the deceased being established as to reparations or compensation for possible wrongful killing, injury and other offences.”

The words sound straightforward, but they strike right at the heart of armed-drone operations precisely because these are remote operations in which the exact identities of many of those killed are neither known nor even sought (see “The Harvest of War: From Pain to Gain”,  28 October 2010). They imply that the very unwillingness, and even the inability, of the attackers to identify the people they kill amount to infringements of international law. This judgment, moreover, applies both to a state that carries out drone-attacks and to a state that allows its territory to be used for them.

The report concentrates primarily on Pakistan and Yemen. But drones are also being used by western forces in Afghanistan and now in Libya, as well as extensively by Israel. Many other countries are likely to follow suit, which underlines the relevance and importance of the report.

There is a tendency to view drone-warfare as something close to a military panacea for problems of paramilitary violence. Now, the fundamental questions it raises are being posed. These have the capacity to hold drone-warfare to legal and moral account. This is an unexpected challenge that cannot be evaded.