Drones have quickly entered our languages, our conversations, and our lives with remarkable ease. A product of venture and wonder, a monument for technology in the last decade. A commercial archetype for this generation, keeping us aligned with those revolutionary cinematic forecasts of modern technology we witnessed as children on our VHS. We cannot resist this thing that keeps us on a track towards science and progress and offers a spectacular gift for both children and adults, satisfying technological fanaticisms and childish wonder. However, this item, this image, that we have grown so comfortably familiar with can quite easily shift. Us – the same people, the same children, the same delight and fascination; only the setting is a little village in the southern most peninsular of the Middle East. That same child with a face full of wonder but followed by the ice chilling drop of fear as the violent sounds of an explosion rupture the ears and an image of death and destruction surrounds.
The 2010s saw the Obama administration embrace the US drone programme, overseeing more strikes in 2009 alone than Bush carried out during the entirety of his presidency (Purkiss, 2017). A total of five hundred and sixty-three drone strikes targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, bringing about the deaths of three hundred and eighty-four to eight hundred and seven civilians (ibid, 2017); a number that has sadly only increased under the Trump administration. Drones have become increasingly utilised in areas that do not line up with the typical image of war. Take 2002 Yemen for instance. A moment of no international war and conflict, and nothing remotely like the scenes we have witnessed since 2015. However, the first strike in this area was launched from a drone – a laser-guiding missile hitting a car and killing a total of six people (The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, 2017). Ten years later, again, but now a village in Yemen, a drone strike tears the jaw of a fourteen-year-old boy and leaves an unknown number of civilians injured and dead (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2011). Perhaps it lessens the probability of dangerous conflict from growing; the 2002 target was reported to have eliminated AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) members for instance. But has it really done so? Death has only risen, and conflict has escalated inexorably. This gruesome reality demands accountability. Especially in light of the Trump administration’s 2019 executive order, where US intelligence officials ‘no longer have to publicly announce how many civilians they have killed in covert air strikes outside the US’s official war zones’ (Purkiss, 2019). Documentation remains lacking and those responsible continue to avoid responsibility. But why does this continue to happen?
The international framework relied on to govern drone activity is nested in the ‘Use of Force’ under the UN Charter, but one may arguably find these precise legalities contestable. The international framework which governs this ‘Use of Force’ is referred to as jus ad bellum (the right to war). Under the UN Charter, Article 2 (4), it is prohibited that there be use of force, or the threat of such, against the territorial integrity of another state (Charter of the United Nations, Article 2 (4)). However, the Charter provides three scenarios where this can be lawful: by consent of the territorial state, in self-defence, or via authorisation by the UN Security Council (Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VII). I point to one particular area of contestation – the scenario whereby drone strikes are granted via consent. Quite simply, granting consent to an external state actor to harbour such immediate life and death control over people (who have had no vote) appears shocking to the democratic ideals we esteem.
If we continue with our Yemeni case-study too, where modern day drone activity is doing little to alleviate the dire humanitarian issue, one may find such consent extremely troubling. What is particularly noteworthy with Yemen is the conflicting relationship between the Hadi government and the Yemeni people. The criticisms President Hadi has received due to the humanitarian crisis and the Saudi-led war (Saudi Arabia being where he currently safely resides), to the recent death sentence issued for him and his Prime Minister by the Specialised Criminal Court in Sana’a for high treason; these emphasise exactly how illegitimate some Yemenis find the Hadi regime and his consent. It is of no surprise then that his consent can very well be questioned and seen as not primarily for the benefit of the Yemeni people. So, is this valid consent? Consent for death administered by an external actor? Consent for death given by a leader clearly without his citizens best interests? Consent where no one is held to account?
International law appears to be operating in a way that privileges external forces over the human rights of civilians. Perhaps I would go so far as to say that its framework for drone activity deconstructs ideas of sovereignty and undermines the territorial integrity of a region. I would even go further to say it is a menacing imperialist force that enjoys limitless frivolity and inconsequentiality. It is alluring for states by virtue of its supposed precision and minimal casualties. It is alluring for states who know that there is little to no access to justice for the people they so precisely target. It is alluring for states that reporting and investigation is likely to be stymied where there is a climate of war with an already high rate of death and injury. It is alluring for states where federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan continue to have limited access to courts.
The Human Rights Watch report on the ‘Wedding that became a Funeral’ has heart-wrenchingly illustrated the brutal reality of what drones are being used to do (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Every single person at that procession was a civilian. Every single person was a victim. The casualties are unfair and unnecessary but the international community is not responding adequately. Perhaps it is easy to overlook these cases as they target a select few with no access to justice; their ‘precision’ ironically allowing those responsible to escape responsibility as the damage remains lesser than that of a nuclear bomb. However, every innocent life deserves justice. Hundreds of drone strikes are launched under the direct command of leaders, of Presidents, and the number of victims only grows with no recourse or inhibition (Boase, 2013). In Pakistan alone the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as nine hundred and sixty-nine civilians may have been killed by drones since 2004, including two hundred and seven children (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2020); flying in the face of claims that drone strikes are ‘exceptionally surgical and precise’ and that they pluck off terror suspects without putting ‘innocent men, women and children in danger’ (Purkiss, 2017).
The recent attack by President Trump on Iranian general Qasem Soleimani showed how altering this ‘precise’ weapon may be. For a moment, a state of peace had been contemplated. It is clear what drones are capable of, but it is also clear that the legalities are grey and allow those responsible to escape transparency and accountability. The external electorate deserves to know what their government is doing and so do the people whose government gave consent to their death. Such consent should be questioned and debated. With the leaps we make in technology, it is not a novel idea that we also make leaps in our protective systems; our justice and our laws. Drones are becoming ubiquitous, but their arbitrary use should not be. The international community quickly needs to find a solution as this constant unchecked loss of life is simply unacceptable.
Human Rights Watch, 2014. A Wedding That Became a Funeral US Drone Attack on Marriage Procession in Yemen. [online] Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/02/19/wedding-became-funeral/us-drone-attack-marriage-procession-yemen>.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2011. Yemen: Reported US covert actions 2001-2011. [online] Available at: <https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/drone-war/data/yemen-reported-us-covert-actions-2001-2011>.
The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, 2017. The Legality of Armed Drones Under International Law.
Purkiss, J., 2017. Obama’s Covert Drone War in Numbers: Ten Times More Strikes than Bush. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, [online] Available at: <https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-01-17/obamas-covert-drone-war-in-numbers-ten-times-more-strikes-than-bush>.
Purkiss, J., 2019. Trump Rolls Back Transparency on Civilian Drone Deaths. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, [online] Available at: <https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2019-03-07/trump-tells-cia-dont-tell-world-about-dead-civilians>.
United Nations. Chapter 1: Article 2 (4), Charter of the United Nations. [online] Available at: <https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/index.html>.
United Nations. Chapter VII: Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression, Charter of the United Nations. [online] Available at: <https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-vii/index.html>.