ISLAMABAD, Pakistan- America’s drone war has been no stranger to controversy as more and more revelations regarding the collateral damage caused by the program is exposed. Unfortunately, civilian casualties seem to have become a common occurrence in the high tech war against terror.
The secrecy of the program and its lack of legal accountability for affected civilians seeking a redress of grievances has resulted in many human rights advocates calling for reform of the program with a shift toward greater transparency.
One does not have to look far to encounter harrowing accounts of civilian deaths caused by drones. Amnesty International has highlighted the most recent incident involving 15 individuals killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Although the United States has not stated whether it authorized the attack, many locals claim a drone is responsible. Reports indicate the 15 killed were simply a group of men traveling to a wedding ceremony.
This is the latest in a steady flow of reports indicating the surgical strikes within Pakistan and Yemen are not as “surgical” as the U.S. government would have many believe. This is most exemplified in the practice of “double tapping.” A “double tap” refers to a strike shortly following the initial strike in the targeted area.
The stated rationale behind this tactic is that those arriving on the scene immediately following the first strike must be militants. There seems to be ample evidence to suggest that this is not always the case. People rushing onto the scene in an attempt to aid those affected could just as easily become a victim of a “double tap” strike.
A great number of those not killed within the strikes are faced with serious financial burden and hardship. If their house is destroyed, they must care for themselves and the surviving members of their family without their home as a necessary financial asset.
A thorough report of the drone program by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic explains the massive contribution these strikes have to the low standard of living in the region. For instance, the poverty and violence that have resulted from these strikes have displaced over 100,000 people in Yemen.
The legal justifications used to justify the drone program lie within the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as well as Article 51 of the UN Charter. The AUMF gives broad powers to the President, allowing him to use necessary force in pursuit of terrorists. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter allows the U.S. to claim self-defense when targeting individuals who are planning attacks both inside and outside declared warzones.
Some argue the current drone program is being applied much too broadly. Philip Alston, a U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, claims that if other nations applied the U.S.’s interpretation of self-defense, the world would dissolve into utter chaos. Others believe the AUMF must be updated to reflect the fact that many of the militants targeted played no part in planning or executing the 9/11 attacks.
The overly broad interpretation of America’s right to self-defense has resulted in the use of indiscriminate weapons affecting not only actual militants engaged in plotting against the U.S., but also innocent bystanders who often have no control over the presence of militants within their communities.
The communities that are aware of a militant presence are often silenced by various scare tactics. For example, villagers in Pakistan claim many militants publicly display dead bodies in an attempt to prevent locals from discussing their presence with outsiders.
Many human rights advocates claim the drone war is long overdue for reform and greater transparency. The Columbia Law School’s report notes the absence of offering amends to the victims of drone strikes such as recognition, explanations, and monetary payments the U.S. offered in other conflicts, such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
And finally, from a national security perspective, it behooves the U.S. to reform this program. Many have argued that although the intended purpose of drone strikes is counter-terrorism, it opens the possibility of increasing anti-American sentiment in the region, and as a result, bring more individuals into the ranks of terrorist groups.
Hassan Abbas, writing in The Guardian, points out that when terrorists and civilians share the same fear, it only opens up the possibility of them coming closer together. An effective counter-terrorism policy hinges on the strategy of winning over the hearts and minds of the local population, motivating them to reject the ideals associated with terrorism.
– Zack Lindberg
Sources: Amnesty International, The Atlantic, Columbia University, The Guardian