Gun control is on many minds this week, but let’s not talk about guns. Let’s talk about drones. (With a reported 300 million guns in private hands in America already, it’s probably too late for gun control anyhow.) Drones are to nation-states what assault rifles are to psychotic mass murderers. Worse yet, the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time until alpha insurgencies like Hezbollah and the Zetas have their own fleets of armed or kamikaze drones.
The sound-bite anti-gun-control argument is, of course, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The counterargument is, “Yeah, but guns sure make it a whole lot easier.” The same applies to drone warfare. It’s suddenly so much easier to pull the trigger, and you’re not putting any of your own people at risk. And so more people die.
But surely sober, thoughtful, serious people make these decisions, you may say, aided by the fabled disposition matrix. If so, there are a few points you need to keep in mind:
1. If you think drone warfare is going to stay limited to the relatively checked-and-balanced trigger fingers of the U.S. military, you are living in one of the more astoundingly deluded dreamlands of recent times. China has its own deadly military drones already — oh, and it’s selling them to pretty much all comers.
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.