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Frankfurter Rundschau, Germany

The Secret Drone War

By Barbara Lochbihler

The laws of engagement permit the targeted killing of civilians only if the combatants are directly involved in hostile actions. The Obama administration continues to ignore this.

Translated By Ron Argentati

11 December 2012

Edited by Kath­leen Weinberger

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau - Original Article (German)

Is a drone actually nothing more than an airplane, as international lawyer Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg recently wrote in this newspaper? Does it really make no difference whether a pilot sits in the cockpit himself or sits with a joystick in his hand thousands of kilometers away wiping out his targets, i.e., human lives? It of course makes a great deal of difference, as the use of unmanned drones brings up basic ethical and human rights questions.

There's no disputing the fact that remote-controlled bombers make killing easier. The more distance an attacker has between himself and the target, the more willing he will be to act. If he operates from a support base in Nevada controlling a drone over Somalia, the inhibition level for pulling the trigger is extremely low. One mouse click is enough to take a human life.

Unfortunately, recent studies confirm that the remote drone war is producing more and more victims: Since President Obama made the unmanned aircraft the main weapon in the war on terror, more than 3,000 people have been killed in over 300 attacks, most of these apparently civilians. Studies done at Stanford University as well as at New York University calculate that between 2008 and 2011, attacks in Pakistan alone showed that up to 75 percent of all victims have been civilians. More conservative estimates say the number is closer to 30 percent. In other words, within three years the drone attacks have killed a minimum of 1,000 people.

While it's possible that the current generation of drones can be better controlled than earlier models, the principal beneficiaries of the new technology have been U.S. troops. This brings up another questionable aspect: Does drone use cause the least political damage to the attacker? A war in which the attacker suffers few or no casualties at all is easier to sell to the public back home. Is the use of unmanned drones meant to make military intervention more palatable to a war-weary population? Is Washington hoping to avoid the protests caused whenever coffins arrive at U.S. airports from foreign shores?

The drone program is especially questionable from human rights and international law standpoints. The bottom line is that the U.S. military is deploying these weapons in countries with which the United States is not at war, namely Pakistan and Yemen. Under such conditions, government-mandated killing of people is expressly justified only when it can be shown beyond a doubt that doing so is necessary to save human lives. The United States has to prove this in every individual case. As long as this isn't enforced, drone attacks will remain “extrajudicial killing” and thus a serious violation of human rights.

The opposing view as expressed by Harold Koh, legal adviser to the U.S. State Department: “[The] United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law.” The attacks took place within the framework of a global war being fought in official war zones as well as outside them. In other words: “everywhere.” That makes Koh's argument absurd because, according to his logic, there would be no difference between an armed conflict and a peaceful one. In addition, the Pakistani government has increasingly protested the drone attacks on its territory.

Even if one accepts Koh's premises, serious human rights problems remain. International Humanitarian Law (IHL) holds that “civilians must be protected against direct attack, ‘unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities’." In addition, lethal action must be proportional strategically as well as appropriate to each case, and the safety of the civilian population must have top priority. Any infraction must be investigated, the perpetrators prosecuted and the victims fairly compensated. The victims referred to here are the numerous civilians killed and injured. But beyond this, there is no mechanism in place to realize that goal. The legal framework of the U.S. drone program is nebulous; most actions are classified and carried out by the CIA. How could anyone be in a position to assure that all victims were actually involved in hostile actions? What redress does a Pakistani farmer have in the case of such a drone attack? Who can be summoned before a court? In the absence of answers to these questions, the drone attacks should be stopped.

Additionally, the German government should also simply abandon its plans to arm its currently unarmed drones in the war zone.



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