The Problem of Drones

Concerns about US armed drone attacks have increased again with the new Trump administration, which has increased the number of drone attacks and weakened some of the standards which the Obama administration had introduced. While this is indeed concerning, the whole debate on the transparency and accuracy of targeting procedures has neglected some of the more fundamental questions which armed drone attacks raise.

Focusing the discussion on the question of transparency and targeting procedures, implies that if missiles are only directed at suspected terrorists then all is well.

But not all is well. The fact that entire populations have been subjected to constant surveillance and bombing from the air should raise more than a debate on transparency. There are serious consequences regarding what the presence of bombers in the sky does, not least psychologically, to people constantly living under drones.

There is also the question of international law: The use of military weapons on foreign territory is contrary to the prohibition of the use of force and constitutes a violation of state sovereignty. The justification of the US government that it can lawfully conduct ‘targeted killing’ strikes against terrorist suspects outside of zones of armed conflict in countries which the US government deems ‘unwilling or unable’ to counter terrorism, stands on extremely shaky legal grounds.

This is all the more concerning because the places in which these bombing campaigns have been conducted are former colonial territories, many of which have been subjected to similar violence during colonial times. The British Royal Air Force, for example, had employed airplanes for the surveillance and bombing of colonial populations in what was called ‘aerial policing’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen in the 1920s and 1930s. The colonial continuities of this form of state violence are too often covered up when the discussion circles around the targeting procedures of the new drone technology.

What is perhaps even more worrying is that the practices and claims of the US government might lead to a change of legal frameworks.  According to international law, the customary interpretation of the right to self-defense can change through state practice, if it is accepted by other states, and some international law scholars have argued in favor of a more expansive right to self-defence

So when the US government continues to use bombs and hellfire missiles in Third World countries outside of zones of armed conflict, there is a lot at stake which current discussions on the transparent procedures of the Obama versus Trump administration seem to miss entirely. The claims of the US that bombing is lawful in countries which are ‘unable or unwilling’ to counter the threat of terrorism, might push the world back to a colonial international law system. It condones the use of military force as lawful if it takes place in areas of the world which are – once again – formally defined as less sovereign than other areas; or as Obama has phrased it a state “which lacks the capacity or will to take action”.

At the moment it does not look like most other states will accept such a wide interpretation of the right to self-defence (the 2005 World Summit Outcome indicated that the vast majority of states is opposed to a change of the traditional interpretation of the right to self-defence). Yet there is still the risk that more governments will seize the opportunity of killing non-state actors within the grey legal zone the US government is currently promoting.

The risk of changing international law standards on the prohibition of the use of force is serious enough that over 200 international law professors across the world have signed the plea against the abusive invocation of self-defence, warning “that military action may henceforth be conducted against the will of a great number of States under the sole pretext that, in the intervening State’s view, they were not sufficiently effective in fighting terrorism.”

Trump’s decision to roll back on the legal oversight of Obama’s targeting procedures and attempts of transparency is a reason to be concerned. But we should not forget that not only were Obama’s transparency attempts modest and incomplete – they moreover did not address these more fundamental questions at all. Discussions around increased transparency and accuracy of targeting procedures might even have distracted public debate from the more important legal, political and moral question we should be asking: No matter how precise the strikes and procedures – should this form of military violence take place in the first place?



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