When it comes to pilotless drones armed with air-to-ground missiles, the United States acknowledges that its counterterrorism strategy includes using terrorist techniques as part of the “war” on terror. Some of these attacks on civilians are widely understood to be war crimes, but the Obama administration refuses to reveal White House lawyers’ memos defending the legality of executive execution.
Currently and controversially, the United States is the only country in the world known to be actively waging drone warfare — the remote aerial killing of people who may or may not be identified, who may or may not be hostile, and who have no way to appeal for a stay of the execution they don’t even know is coming their way.
Some call the drone war a “moral black box” that reflects badly on American ethics.
Protests against this form of summary execution are happening with increasing frequency not only in Pakistan, where the U.S. has killed hundreds of non-combatants, but in Britain, Australia, Illinois, New York, and now Vermont.
Already concerned by the increasing militarization of their state and country, Vermont activists are calling for their congressional representatives to oppose further drone use on defenseless countries. None of the delegation, not Sen. Patrick Leahy, not Sen. Bernie Sanders, not Rep. Peter Welch, has raised much of a fuss about drone killings, not even when the President chose to kill an American citizen.
Vermonters with Veterans for Peace, the Peace and Justice Center, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom also oppose basing a drone control center in Vermont, a possibility floated by National Guard Major General Michael Dubie as early as 2011.
To heighten consciousness of drone attacks on law and the Constitution, activists have arranged to hear directly from Leah Bolger, one of 30 Americans in the Code Pink delegation who went to Pakistan for the mass protest against drones led by political leader Imran Khan in early October. Ms Bolger, president of Veterans for Peace, came directly from Pakistan to hold a press conference at the National Guard base gate and to speak to a college audience at St. Michael’s College.
While other countries, certainly Israel and perhaps Iran, may be dabbling in drone warfare, only the U.S. is engaged in remote control killing of citizens in at least five theoretically sovereign nations, including Pakistan, Afghanistan,Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia, as well as suspected strikes in Libya, Iraq, Mali, Colombia, Mexico, and others. Israeli drones have reportedly killed 825 people in Gaza since mid-2006.
The legal problems created by drone warfare are similar to the problems the U.S. created for itself by deciding to torture prisoners without legal restraint. As explained by Richard Falk, international lawyer and retired Princeton professor, “The U.S. reliance on attack drones to engage in targeted killing, especially in third countries (Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan) has raised controversial international law issues of sovereign rights in interaction with lethal acts of war, especially those far removed from the zone of live combat.”
More bluntly, the U.S. is committing acts of war, killing the citizens of other countries in their own countries, without a shred of due process of law, whether international, American, or local, and the acts are not confronted even by international authorities such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court (which the U.S. refuses to recognize).
In June 2012, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, issued a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling attention to the dubious legality of drone warfare. The South African Jurist said “Reference should be made to a study earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism… If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime.”
The impact and effectiveness of drone strikes is intensely debated and the Obama administration does what it can to keep relevant information secret. But Pakistan counts more than 1,000 innocent civilian killed, and other observers, both military and civilian, say the drone strikes create far more angry people bent on revenge than it kills terrorist plotters.
The numbing effect of killing people by remote control is another cost of this kind of war, made vivid in the video of a former British drone operator who found it “too easy to kill” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thomas Powers, who has written extensively about the CIA and other secret agencies, describes the problem this way: “Drones are an unreliable and conspicuous way of killing individuals. With drones we have no way to tell who we are killing. It’s abrogating a right to ourselves that no organization should have. It’s arbitrary and driven by politics. What seems inevitable today is going to cause you trouble tomorrow. Ask yourself if the United States would accept the right of another country to decide who among Americans they would kill. There are probably people in Arizona allied with drug cartels. Would we allow Mexican forces to use drones against them? Hell, no.”
In April, the first international Drone Summit held in Washington, D.C., raised issues of legality, constitutionality, efficacy, cost, justice, and security. But Drone warfare had not been a significant issue in any presidential campaign. Meanwhile the international drone market is booming.