Until the beginning of 2013, the Obama Administration’s use of drones in its targeted killing program of suspected terrorists received attention primarily from scholars and policymakers. That changed, however, after a December 2012 court ruling that the Obama Administration could not be forced to release information justifying a drone strike in 2011 which killed a US citizen in Yemen. Following an announcement by the UN that it will—for the first time—investigate the legality and extent of drone attacks, it is likely that 2013 will be a defining year for military drones.
Drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), execute remote targeted killings of suspected Al-Qaeda/Taliban operatives in a number of countries, often outside the only internationally recognized conflict zone (Afghanistan) in which the US is operating. The legitimacy for these attacks is granted through the US Congress’ 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution, which was a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The resolution authorized the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” But this resolution has never been granted legitimacy in the international arena. Now, over 10 years since 9/11 and with Osama bin Laden and his associates dead, the lack of accountability and almost non-existent transparency of Obama’s targeted killing program—of which drones are a central component—are increasingly being criticized.
Supporters of drones repeatedly cite two main arguments for drone warfare: Troops are not at risk and civilian casualties are minimized. However, Obama’s drone attacks are covert, often occurring in nations (for example, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia) where no US troops are in combat situations. This not only nullifies the argument regarding US troops but it also leads to unanswered questions regarding the use of drones in relation to international law (not to mention the rule of law). Also, the covert nature of Obama’s drone strikes—which mostly occur in remote, inaccessible areas—mean that the number of civilian casualties is unknown. Identifying the impact of drones on civilians is made more difficult by some victims of drone strikes being “charred beyond recognition.”
Opposition to Obama’s drone warfare is mounting. A recent scholarly study on drone strikes in Pakistan concluded that not only is there “significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians” but also that exact numbers of these casualties are difficult to find as there are substantial “US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability.” Contrary to official US statements, the most accurate available information on drone strikes in Pakistan suggests that between 475-891 civilians have been killed—the vast majority since 2008. From that number, 176 deaths of children have been confirmed. In Yemen, the Yemeni government has long-tried to conceal civilian casualties following US drone strikes as it feared increasing anti-US sentiment beyond the already high levels seen throughout the country. But there are now signs of dissenting opinions in the Yemeni government, with one minister saying that “strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”
There are also some signs from within the US government that the use of drones may not be as beneficial to the US as first seemed. John Kerry, the incoming Secretary of State, said recently that “President Obama, and every one of us here, knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.” This is a significant statement as, until now, Obama’s government had whole-heartedly embraced drones as a popular and effective tool of its foreign policy objectives.
However, there are also strong efforts in the US to maintain positive public perceptions of military drones. A recent PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) documentary, “Rise of the Drones”, examined how drones are revolutionizing warfare. However, despite the documentary being promoted as objective, it was partially funded by the company Lockheed Martin, a well-known US Department of Defense contractor. “Rise of the Drones” has been criticized for “being more like propaganda than a documentary that rightfully provokes exploration of critical issues posed by drones.” What’s more, the documentary’s release was accompanied by a round of media interviews by Missy Cummings, a professor in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Even though Cummings promoted drone warfare as being a “safer, more effective form of warfare” in her interview on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Stewart did not question her assertions. As a result, his viewers, which average 2.3 million per airing, could not either.
At the moment it is unclear if the Obama administration will continue to rely on drones in its open-ended War on Terror. But with many other nations expanding their drone programs in 2013, it is crucial that regulation of drone-use is clearly defined and implemented. The Obama regime may have acted with impunity until now, but these actions must cease before the rule of law is further eroded, before international law becomes hollow, and before more innocent lives are lost.