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Drones: Backfiring on U.S. Strategy

César Chelala

Predator drones are equipped with large and powerful cameras that beam real-time images to their operators. Last February, a Predator crew operating out of Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, asked for an air strike against three vehicles with males supposed to be insurgents. An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets which destroyed the three vehicles. Instead of insurgents, 23 innocent men, women and children were killed and 12 more were seriously injured.

In a scathing report released on May 29, the American military blamed the "inaccurate and unprofessional reporting" by a team of Predator drone operators that led to the strikes. This episode illustrates the serious risks involved in the use of drones, which many law experts consider violate rules of war. Predator drones are extensively used in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they track and kill suspected insurgents, sometimes with their own missiles.

A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, makes a thorough assessment on the effect of drones, whose use has provoked significant controversy.

Drones' proponents argue that since they have significant surveillance capacity and great precision, they are able to avoid collateral civilian casualties and injuries. They also state that since drones may provide the ability to conduct aerial surveillance and to gather "pattern of life" information, they may allow operators to distinguish between peaceful civilians and those engaged in direct hostilities. The above episode is a clear demonstration of the fallacy of this argument and of the dangers to civilians of using such lethal weapons.

According to the Alston report, the main concern about drones is that they make it easier to kill without any risk to a State's forces. I believe that an even greater risk is the process of trivializing war, making it thus a deadlier, more dangerous activity since it affects not only those who are target but also those who direct the operation and for whom war becomes no more significant than a video game.

An additional complication to the use of drones is that in many cases international forces are too often uninformed of local practices, or too credulous in interpreting information, to be able to arrive at a reliable understanding of a situation, wrote Michael N. Schmitt, a Professor of International Law at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, in Germany.

According to Schmitt, precision warfare such as the one carried out by drones intersects (or has the potential to interact) with international humanitarian law in four specific areas: the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks; the principle of proportionality, the requirement to take precautions in attack; and perfidy and other misuses of protected status.

Precision attacks as carried out by drones may violate international humanitarian law's tenet of distinction, as stated in Articles 48, 51 and 52 of Additional Protocol I. As indicated by Schmitt, distinction has been cited as a "cardinal" principle of international humanitarian law by the International Court of Justice.

CIA officers are concerned that the use of drones will backfire and may help Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders recruit more militants. "Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect, [the drones' program] is doing more harm than good," said Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces in an interview with Inter Press Service.

Presently, several countries including China, France, India, Israel, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom either have or are seeking drones with the capability to shoot laser-guided missiles. If the use of these dangerous weapons becomes more frequent, so will the safety of innocent civilians and violations of international humanitarian law.

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César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.

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