Momentum to rein in the arbitrary and expansive use of drones has been growing over the last few weeks. The United Nations announced plans to investigate their impact on civilians, and in a Harvard Law School speech in October 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur warned that that some US strikes may actually constitute war crimes. The Council on Foreign Relations just released a report calling for the end to signature strikes – the particular bombings that target “patterns of behavior” instead of individuals. The report weighs the benefits of drones against drawbacks which include stimulating radicalism rather than subduing it.
An article in the New York Review of Books last year also noted a lesser known problem with drones: according to studies by the military, drone operators often end up suffering similar levels of trauma to those in the field. The deadly devices operate at distance but the technology that enables them to be so accurate – seeing people up close – also makes the kills personal, which is disturbing of course when unarmed children end up the victims.
The drone questions have come to the fore as the Obama administration considers the unpleasant t options in Mali. A U.S. official told the Washington Post that “contingency plans for the use of armed drones were already in place and are being reevaluated.”
This prompted Bob Naiman from Just Foreign Policy to properly point out that the authorization of force passed by Congress after the September 11, 2011 attacks is not applicable to Mali. The Obama Administration has not sought any far reaching authority for attacks, since it believes AQIM’s goals are much more limited than, say, al Qaeda after 9/11. This also means that should the administration decide to use armed drones, it should expect to face a skeptical Republican-controlled House of Representatives reluctant to grant expansive war powers authority.
From the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Guinea (?)
Research by Peter Singer has also revealed that U.S. Air Force doctrine gives drones the rights of self-defense as if the soldiers operating them were physically there. This means that if an Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) is fired upon, it can legally fire back. This gives us a possible pretext scenario for Mali, through which Congressional authorization becomes unnecessary because US troops – ie, robots – have been attacked. “Americans [need] to fully understand and comprehend the precedents, or the dangerous precedents, that they are creating,” explained Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, in New York last week during a speech condemning UAV’s. He added that from the perspective of international responsibilities and the architecture of the international system, drones are “illegal” and his government is “absolutely not approving the strikes” in Pakistan.
Thirty-three grassroots organizations wrote President Obama a letter dated January 17 hoping to head off the possibility of armed drones in Africa, arguing that “current and future military operations will harm U.S. and African interests and communities.” Drones would only make matters worse. And with “vast human rights abuses” in Mali and Nigeria, and civil liberties crackdowns in Ethiopia and Uganda, U.S. security assistance through AFRICOM or other means would undermine democratic movements on the ground.
It was only after the Manhattan Project succeeded in building the atomic bomb that its lead physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, came to consider the ethical and political consequences of his scientific accomplishment. “The scientists knew that the gadget was going to force a redefinition of the whole notion of national sovereignty” wrote Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin in their stunning biography, American Prometheus, but the physicists had faith that President Franklin Roosevelt would use the technology to end war by trusting the United Nations with this new sovereignty.
At a time when the president is pursuing gun control at home, maybe it’s time to also rethink arms control abroad.