Plague of Locusts: Our Failure to Regulate Drone Warfare
The Obama administration’s increasing reliance on drones for targeted killings, especially in countries far removed from active combat (e.g. Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan), has raised legal controversies regarding national sovereignty and the limits on permissible forms of warfare. The policy has produced unintended deaths of civilians who are mistakenly targeted or in the vicinity of the target at the wrong time (“collateral damage”). There are also contested reports of follow-up drone attacks at sites of earlier targeted killing, which seem to be directed at those who mount rescue operations or arrange funerals for prior victims.
Military planners imagine a future with drone swarms, squadrons of drones re-targeting after an attack without needing to return to base, and covert surveillance and attacks using micro-drones. These musings are not science fiction. The technologies are well financed and being developed at a rapid pace. Access to drone technology by other countries as well as private-sector actors is certain to expand. Already some 50 nations reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. With the prospects of a dystopian future dominated by such devices, it is imperative that we create the appropriate legal framework to impose limits, if not prohibitions, on their uses.
As with the Bush torture debate, Washington’s political leadership has turned to government lawyers to justify the use of drones. They have responded by developing legal briefs redolent of the notorious John Yoo “torture memos.” There are, however, significant differences between the two contexts that make torture a poor basis for comparison. First, torture has a long history, and its prohibition is enshrined in the International Torture Convention of 1984. Torture is also enumerated as one of the Crimes Against Humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. Drone technology adapted for the battlefield is, by contrast, of extremely recent origin. There is nothing in international law regarding drone attacks that is comparable to the legal repudiation of torture.