In this 28-minute interview on Sputnik Radio Edinburgh, guests Laurie Calhoun and Peter Lee (a Reader in Politics & Ethics at the University of Portsmouth) discuss with host John Harrison whether lethal drones have fundamentally changed the conduct of warfare, to the point where international protocols grounded in the “just war” tradition are now being ignored.
It’s official: the US government has now confessed to having intentionally and premeditatedly killed at least 2,372 persons in places where US force protection was not the reason for the acts of homicide. They also admit to having unintentionally killed at least another 64 persons who were doing nothing other than going about their lives in their civil societies. These are remarkable admissions. Why? Because the approximately 2,400 acts of homicide are openly and unselfconsciously acknowledged to have taken place not where the lives of US military personnel or other citizens were at stake, but “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”.
Persons killed “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” were living in places which were not war zones. There were no “active hostilities” underway. The targets slain by lethal drones in such places were not directly threatening any other human being with death at the moment when they were killed. The more than 2,400 recently confessed homicides were committed in the victims’ civil societies. In other words, the stalking and hunting down of these people constituted acts of assassination, not acts of war. These were extrajudicial executions, authorized by the US president in the name of national self-defense.
The equivocation between criminals and soldiers began under the Bush administration, which waged full-scale wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, instigated by a relatively small group of persons most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, which strangely (or not) received a “get out of jail free” pass from the US government.
In the case of the targeted killing program using lethal drones, the US government under Obama also wishes to have it both ways, treating the targets as convicted criminals whose just desert is death, while simultaneously invoking Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and a state’s “inherent right to self defense” as the reason for killing all of these people, with the innocents written off as “collateral damage”.
Scholars of international law have repeatedly observed that Article 51 is only relevant when the nation against which military action is taken has actively initiated hostilities against the nation claiming to defend itself. In other words, Article 51 is inapplicable to these acts of homicide, because, by the US government’s own acknowledgement, they have taken place “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”. A war zone is a site of active hostility. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are identified as “areas of active hostilities” in the US government’s recently disseminated “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.”
The persons reported on in the July 1, 2016, document were killed between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, and resided in remote territories of tribal regions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and possibly other places as well—the countries are not named because the homicides perpetrated outside of active war zones are being carried out under the authority of the CIA, not the Pentagon, and so count as covert operations.
The transparency infamously championed by Obama ends up amounting to this:
We will admit to having killed these people, but we won’t tell you who they were, when they were killed, or why (beyond the fact that we have decided that they were enemies of the state). All of that sort of information is classified. Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.
Even if the US government somehow became willing to divulge the names of their targets, it turns out that most of the names are not known anyway. The question, therefore, must be posed: How did the US government know that they were terrorists? The answer, I regret to say, is: They did not.
The victims were all suspected terrorists, just like the persons interned at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of whom were later determined to have had no connections to terrorist groups. They may have looked like terrorists. They may have dressed like terrorists. Their comportment may have matched the “disposition matrix” of behaviors typical of terrorists—carrying weapons, wearing turbans, hollering out in anger at the invaders of their land—but most of those men, incarcerated under the authority of President George W. Bush, were not terrorists at all. They were suspects who turned out to be innocent.
The Obama administration’s manner of dealing with persons suspected of complicity with terrorist groups has been summarily to execute them all: “Kill don’t capture” or “Take No Prisoners” is, sad to say, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Once the persons killed by drone strikes are dead, they are categorized as “enemy killed in action”, or EKIA, which we know not from the July 1, 2016, report but from classified US government documents made public by The Intercept thanks to a whistleblower.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact, so let me reiterate it as plainly as I can: The persons killed by Obama “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” have precisely the same status as the persons imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s terrorist suspects have been executed rather than rendered to secret torture facilities and held without charges for many years, but that certainly does not imply that they were guilty. Instead, it implies that Obama has committed war crimes. He has executed thousands of human beings on suspicion of their potential for possible complicity in future possible terrorist plots.
When will the Obama apologists finally open their eyes to the atrocities committed by him in their name?
Drone warriors have been redefining words from the very beginning, and they have sadly persuaded a fair portion of the populace to accept that the formerly taboo practice of assassination is now legal, provided only that it be labeled “targeted killing”. It’s supposed to be perfectly permissible for the US president (Obama) or UK prime minister (Cameron) to annihilate some of their compatriots without indictment or trial, much less conviction of capital crimes, so long as the hired guns use missiles rather than bullets to dispatch targets on the government’s hit list. Everyone knows that missiles are weapons of war. Ergo, drone strikes are acts of war. As sophomoric as that little piece of reasoning may be, far too many people have fallen for it, including political elites.
In the United States, 9/11 appears to have induced an effect on citizens’ capacity for criticism akin to the concussion caused by a blunt blow to the cranium. That was fifteen years ago, Osama bin Laden was slain five years ago, and yet the damage to US citizens’ critical faculties appears in some cases to have been permanent. Most politicians continue to line up to support any- and everything labeled “national defense”, even when it obviously degrades the security of the people paying for it. Arming ISIS? Deposing more dictators to create power vacuums perfect for the flourishing of terrorists? Really?
The thousands of targets taken out by drone strikes have been denied all rights under international law. The governing assumption among US administrators has been that suspects are always and everywhere evil terrorists à la Osama bin Laden. Guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around, as Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires. As difficult to believe as it may be, the drone warriors have succeeded in rolling back “justice” to pre-Magna Carta times. But the false analogies, faulty reasoning and linguistic léger-de-main certainly do not stop there.
Article 51 of the UN Charter has been interpreted by the drone warriors to mean that they (anyone?) may fire missiles anywhere in the world they want. All that is needed is to define “hostile” areas as “battlefields” and claim that killing this particular tribesman, whose identity is unknown, who does not even possess a passport, and who inhabits a hut in a remote region of a Third World country, is an imminent threat to the existence of the United States. I have to wonder what historians will say about all of this in a hundred years or so…
Take the battle to the enemy! the drone warfare enthusiasts cheer each time they read another headline regurgitating the Pentagon’s latest report of having attempted to take out another suspected militant. It does not even appear to matter to the cheerleaders for lethal drones that the vast majority of strikes have been undertaken against persons of unknown identity. What matters is that the pile of ashes formerly known as a human being and identified as potentially (not immediately!) threatening by savvy analysts at the CIA (or their private military company (PMC) affiliates) will never make it to US shores.
So what if the Middle East is a morass of murder and mayhem? So what if radical Islamic jihadist franchises continue to proliferate and spread to new territories? So what if the lives of millions of human beings have been destroyed or severely degraded? So what if no one on the planet but the self-deluded warriors themselves believes that they have been selected to do God’s will?
Safe and smug in their belief that none of this could harm them, and might even be keeping them safe, Americans have gone about their shopping as usual, as though they had nothing to worry about, their blithe state of complacency punctuated only by the occasional lunatic mass killing in the homeland. But those nutcases have nothing whatsoever to do with the US government’s ever-more lethal policy. Do as we say, not as we do! The current Democratic party leadership insists that we need to implement strict background checks before selling guns to people on the terrorist watch list in the homeland. Meanwhile, they continue to condone President Obama’s record levels of weapons exports to the rest of the world. It’s the American way.
A recent development, the vote by the US senate to require women in the United States to register for the Selective Service and be prepared to step forward to defend the nation, should the need be said by politicians to arise, represents another instance of the fallacious reasoning and linguistic sleight of hand so deftly deployed by the drone warriors up to now. How did it come about? As usual, the first steps were highly surreptitious and sneaky. Under Obama, light footprints abound, invariably leaving deep pools of blood on the ground.
About the time that the drone operator recruitment crisis began to worsen, with enlisted persons abandoning the profession in droves once their initial contract term had elapsed, the Pentagon suddenly announced that all combat positions would henceforth be open to women. Feminists naturally rejoiced.Hurrah! What a victory! Shouldn’t women who are ready and willing to fight alongside men be permitted to do so, if they choose? The key word was of course ‘choose’. Women in the military were thrilled that they could now ascend to the heights of the top brass, able to break that pesky glass ceiling at last. So far, so good.
The next step was to transform the “choice” of some women to become combat troops, probably a very small minority even of those already enlisted, into a “responsibility” to defend the nation. If the government is willing to grant women the privilege of being able to fight alongside men, then shouldn’t women correlatively shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation, when called upon to do so?
If you are scratching your head about now, that’s because you have knocked into a serious non sequitur. From ‘may’ no ‘must’ follows. (David Hume would be appalled.) Stated simply for any non-philosophers who may be reading this post:
Permission does not imply obligation.
The fact that the small number of women who would in fact choose to serve as combat soldiers may now do so in no way implies that all of the rest of the “military age” women in the United States must present themselves on the battlefield when called up to serve.
This instance of fallacious reasoning fits right in with the rest of the drone warriors’ Orwellian approach to foreign policy, pseudo-morality and so-called justice. Let us be as clear and unequivocal as possible:
No one has a duty to serve as a government assassin.
No one. Neither men nor women can be compelled to act in ways which flagrantly violate the Geneva Conventions, even setting aside for a moment all of the other protocols being ignored or creatively reinterpreted. The targets of drone strikes are usually unarmed and not directly threatening any other person with harm, least of all the operator who incinerates them.
The suspects (I repeat, suspects) are not warned that they are about to be killed, and they are denied the opportunity to surrender or to explain how their phone number ended up in the contact list of another suspected terrorist’s cell phone. These homicides are, therefore, violations of international law, and no US citizen is obliged to follow illegal orders. As the many brave veterans who have spoken out against “targeted killing” continue to protest, it is a violation of the “laws of war” to follow unlawful orders.
All drone operators firing on targets residing in countries not at war (except in the minds of the drone warriors), should immediately cease and desist from following these unlawful orders. Mark my words: the drone assassination of thousands of suspects and their “associates” will eventually go down in history along with the Nuremberg trials. I regret that it is taking so long for the rest of the international community to awaken to the acrid scent of the charred flesh of so many innocent persons presumed guilty until proven innocent before being hunted down and killed with impunity by the drone warriors.
Young women and men alike: do not be fooled. You have no obligation to serve as a hired assassin for your government. Save your soul: just say “no”.
You know that the war on terrorism is waning in popularity when the summary execution without trial of a single young British man believed to be an executioner makes all of the major headlines, even as the reports are qualified with terms indicating their complete lack of ‘near certainty‘ that the strike destroyed the intended target:
This latest act of premeditated, intentional, stealth homicide is being trumpeted as an important victory, just as so many earlier reports before touted “suspected militants slain” and “no. 2 Al Qaeda leader defeated”. All of the other able-bodied males killed in the stead of intended, named targets become immortalized as “suspected militants slain”. The women, children and elderly men are generally not mentioned, unless they happen to be Westerners, in which case they are labeled ‘collateral damage’ and blamed on the evil enemy.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John”, is dead and that he in fact murdered people and so was guilty of capital crimes. He was killed by a US drone, with the aid of UK intelligence. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a public statement to let everybody know about his belief in the reasonablecertainty that “Jihadi John” was probably another feather in his cap. Or a war trophy. Britain is not officially at war with Syria, but Cameron’s government has been following Obama’s lead in doing whatever they like, whenever they like, and wherever they like.
Cameron appears to be in the midst of a whirlwind effort to accrue big-time drone warrior creds, having already authorized the execution of two other British nationals, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in August 2015. He also recently purchased a slew of new drones which he has christened “Protectors“. That slick maneuver brought him quickly up to speed with the longstanding Orwellian rebranding game. Is Cameron moving forward, or is he sliding down a slippery slope to a dark and dismal place, while taking Britain with him?
An editorial in The Guardian on the legality of the strike argues, with Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, that the latest drone killing of a British citizen cannot be rationalized under Article 51, the national self-defense clause, of the United Nations Charter. The sudden and quite vocal expression of concern surrounding the legality of the killing of Mohammed Emwazi strikes me as a bit tardy. How in the world were the assassinations of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin any better on that count? Or perhaps the assumption among many at the time was that those two homicides would be rare exceptions, not the beginning of Britain’s own full-fledged Drone Age, complete with new ways of interpreting old laws.
These have all been small but significant steps down a path which can only end in summary execution without trial in the homeland. Not possible? Implausible? Improbable? I believe that we can be reasonably certain that this is probably where all of this will end. It will only take a leader capable of recognizing the arbitrariness of the location of a suspect, and also the implement of homicide–using a pistol or a poison would be illegal, but a missile is permissible?–before summary execution without trial will become standard operating procedure at home as abroad.
The Obama administration’s sad legacy will be the further erosion of the rule of law and a full-on attack on the very idea of human rights. Was Jihadi John destroyed in the strike? Or was it some other young male who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time? If so, this fact may be discovered later on, but the designation of the victims as legitimate targets will not change. The military-age males destroyed by drone strikes are defined as guilty until proven innocent, which is of course impossible for them to do.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government decided to pursue the perpetrators by ordering full-scale invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When large-scale preemptive war did not work, they added on smaller-scale targeting of individuals in lands where war had never been waged. From killing only foreigners, the drone warriors moved “ahead”, in a misguided show of cosmopolitanism, to target nationals suspected of treason as well. Obama authorized the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, and the rest is British history.
Hackers and propagandists, both nationals and nonnationals, have been hunted down abroad and killed just as though they were weapon-bearing militants. The next natural step in this progression will be the elimination of political dissidents within the homeland. If it seems as though that would be breaking a law or two, no matter: just redefine a term or two, and we’ll have achieved Orwellian’s ultimate nightmare: when “democracy” becomes indistinguishable from tyranny.
Germany houses Ramstein Air Force Base, from which lethal drone strikes have been and continue to be carried out by the US government in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other places. Why is this problematic? First, because Hellfire missiles launched from drones are being used to eliminate persons in lands where war was never waged, in violation of the United Nations Charter, which requires that member states secure the approval of the Security Council before penetrating the territory of a sovereign nation with the weapons of war.
Until the recent coup in Yemen and the resultant chaos—arguably precipitated by the US drone program—most of the missiles there were being fired at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an ostensibly civilian, not military organization. Only this past weekend, four more unnamed “suspected Al Qaeda members” were taken out by a US drone in Jawf province, in the southern part of Yemen. The deaths in such cases—whether of suspects or so-called collateral damage—are by all appearances extrajudicial executions, what in the twentieth-century would have been carried out covertly, in black ops. Only in the Drone Age has assassination been rebranded as an act of war, in an unfortunate frenzy on the part of US policy makers to appear strong in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
We now know that many of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay were innocent. They were rounded up as terrorist suspects, but later determined not to have been terrorists at all. The Bush administration “tortured some folks,” as Obama put it, and he vowed to call a halt to the mistreatment of detainees. This was accomplished, remarkably, by ceasing altogether to take any prisoners in territories deemed hostile, opting instead to kill them all. US administrators infamously decreed that due process and judicial process are not one and the same and proceeded to act according to a new principle, “kill don’t capture”, under the obviously erroneous assumption (given the findings at Guantánamo Bay) that all terrorist suspects are in fact terrorists.
In none of the drone killings have the suspects been granted, as is required by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the opportunity to defend themselves against the determination by the reigning “kill committee” that they deserve to die. According to the Department of Justice White Paper, US citizens intentionally killed in drone strikes, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who was annihilated in Yemen on September 30, 2011, are not denied “due process”, even when they have never been indicted for crimes, much less allowed to stand trial.
US officials have also insisted that the strikes are permitted under Article 51, the self-defense clause, of the UN Charter. However, that the strikes in Yemen have been acts of self-defense is belied by the fact that, until 2015, the US government sought the permission of the central government before killing on Yemen soil. No political leader can grant or withhold an inherent right to self-defense.
The complicity of Germany in such extrajudicial executions bears special scrutiny. Even if the executions from Ramstein Air Force Base had been carried out at the conclusion of a robust judicial process, fully respecting the rights of the suspects, the European Union prohibits its members from imposing the death penalty even on convicted murderers. In other words, Germany, by permitting such acts of killing to be carried out from German soil, would seem to be violating the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which clearly states in Chapter 1, Article 2(2):
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.
The statement is categorical. There are no exceptions. It does not say
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except by remote-control.
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when deemed worthy of death by the US government.
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when accidentally killed by the US government as they attempt to kill somebody else.
Three plaintiffs recently filed a suit alleging Germany’s culpability in the drone killing in Yemen of two innocent men, Salim bin Ali Jaber and Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. The plaintiffs argued that Ramstein Air Force Base, located on German soil, is an integral part of the US “kill chain”, without which the victims would not have been slain.
The judge sided with the German government, which argued that it cannot control what other sovereign nations do. But is this true? Is it right? If Germany has granted the US government to operate on German soil, does this imply that within the space where they operate “Everything is permitted”? That sounds like a non sequitur to me. The judge in the case, Hildegund Caspari-Wierzoch, stated that the plaintiffs are welcome to appeal the case, and it appears that they intend to do so.
If the United States has committed war crimes in Yemen, and they were perpetrated from German soil, then the German government was a culpable collaborator. The only way to avoid such complicity would be to expel the wrongdoers or prohibit them from violating international law while operating in Germany.
Does anyone deny that the Vichy regime was complicit in the crimes committed on French soil by the Third Reich? The cases are not so very different, it seems to me.