What makes Drones illegal


The United States has been conducting drone attacks in the Northern ‘terrorist infested’ areas of Pakistan since 2004. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles controlled by the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Although drone attacks started during George W Bush’s second term, with the consent of Pakistani government and military, they have substantially increased since President Obama joined office. The number of militant versus civilian casualties in these attacks varies. While the Pakistani government insists that more than 90% of the casualties are not targeted terrorists, Western media continues to push all the victims under ‘suspected militants’ category. The New American Foundation has released statistics since 2004. The uncertainty of the number of casualties is appalling.


Number of Attacks

Number of Casualties

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While countless reports have been published proving the counter-productivity of the “let’s go get ‘em” counterterrorism strategies, the ethical dimension of this debate has taken another turn altogether. And hence the issues encircling the drone debate need to be addressed layer by layer.

Recently drone talk has become quite common in Pakistan. Opposition parties have taken up the issue and popular cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, a well respected philanthropist, has used his political party to raise tremendous amount of awareness of the injustice of drone warfare. With the help of his ex-wife Jemima Khan, Khan’s party has decided to take the matter to the International Criminal Court with the release of a documentary Jemima is working on. This mass level awareness about the issue has gone global. The issue has been taken up by Western media and one of the biggest milestones for the anti-drone movement was Noam Chomsky’s decision to join the club. Noam Chomsky, perhaps the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, is also one of the biggest critics of Liberalism and American foreign policy.

But what is the problem with the US government resorting to a method of killing terrorists that minimizes American casualties?

First of all Pakistan government claims that drone attacks are taking place against Pakistan’s consent. When exactly Pervez Musharraf sanctioned the US to use Pakistani airspace to conduct these attacks in the Northern belt, and who signed what contract if any remains of the many mysteries in Pakistan’s political history. The fact is nobody knows. When this issue was taken up and Pakistan’s PPP government under media and civilian pressure claimed their sovereignty was being compromised, the American government mentioned some fax that we have yet to see. But then again, confidentiality of evidence is vital because otherwise lives would be at stake. However drone attacks were a regular phenomenon even when the PPP took office. So why was it only after opposition parties and the media took up the issue that the government realized something had hit them?

Secondly, drone attacks are illegal because the suspected criminals/militants/terrorists are not given a chance in court. So this is a more theoretical dimension of the debate. Say, even if only 10% of the victims were militants, according to international norms of criminal justice, just killing them off without a trial is a crime. What exactly are those militants guilty of?

Thirdly, what is that final line between a militant who poses a threat to national security and a civilian? Have the terrorism busters across the globe defined exactly who is a trouble maker and why?

For a comparison with other counter-terrorism used recently, we can take a look at the successful military operation in Swat in 2007. The Pakistan Army sent in troops to the district of Swat to confront the locally elected Taliban forces who were forcefully imposing their version of Sharia on the people. The main incentive for the locals to vote the Taliban in was an efficient justice system, but the Taliban’s promises of justice came with ugly laws to suffocate the Swati society completely. The Pakistan army after tough battle with the Taliban and military and civilian casualties was successfully able to drive the Taliban out. Even though two years later Taliban presence became a reality the government realized was impossible to ignore, and a mutual compromise was reached, the operation from the Pakistani perspective was a success because its targets were placed with more precision.

The militants killed in the military operations were obviously not given the luxury of a trial. They however were given the benefit of confrontation. The Pakistan Army announced the operation, allowed those who claimed to side with the establishment a chance to leave with their belongings and loved ones. The rest chose to fight. They were not mere civilians, or suspected militants at best. Their crime at that point was not mere suspicion of conspiracy or involvement in ambiguous violence or terrorism. Rather they saw themselves as adversaries of the Pakistani government on an equal footing and put up a fight.

On the other hand, drone attacks are premised on the assumption that these areas are safe havens of terrorists. Ground spies leak information that is used to conveniently finish off the suspects. Unsuspecting, busy with their regular errands and out of nowhere they are turned to dust within seconds. All it takes is a remote control. Like a video game, exactly like a video game. What is more disturbing is the lack of accurate statistics. The Pakistan government and the US are not on the same page. Not on the total number of casualties, not on the number of militants, not on the number of affected, nor to what degree. Children have lost lives. Women have often been targeted. Interviews have shown that the CIA’s method to decide location of strikes is pretty much random.

Not only are more civilians being affected, this brutal method of killing has only increased hatred towards the United States, hence increasing militant recruitment. Are drone attacks, escalating militants ranks, killing off more innocent people than suspected, worth pursuing? CIA’s brutal double tap technique has earned the US immense criticism. While since 2010 the number of attacks has decreased, the number of casualties has increased because a strike is followed by missile fires which kill the people who have collected to help survivors. This method ensures that the United States has crossed all limits to violate human rights and bow the seeds of hatred to people who might even be against the militants before their loved ones become victims of such brutality. Is this the Peace our allies are fighting for?

It is bizarre how the Pakistani government left the issue as soon as a certain fax was mentioned. While opposition parties and human rights groups worldwide are chanting in harmony against these killing devices, it seems bizarre that the International Court of Justice needs to wait for a documentary to take notice of the matter.

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