They are a lethal bolt out of the blue, and under U.S. President Barack Obama those bolts are coming with ever greater frequency.
Since 9/11, strikes by Predator and Reaper drone aircraft have killed as many as 2,000 Al Qaeda, Taliban and other militants in Pakistan alone, the New America Foundation reports. They have also left as many as 500 innocent civilians dead, fanning anti-American hostility and debate about the legitimacy of such tactics.
Remotely controlled by American military and spy operators, drones can fly hundreds of kilometres and circle targets for hours before firing light but lethal Hellfire missiles. Under Obama, Washington has stepped up their use because it’s a cheap, low-risk way of taking out enemies. And Pakistan isn’t the only theatre of operations. Drones have seen combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and increasingly in Somalia and Yemen.
Indeed the Washington Post reports that the U.S. is negotiating a whole new web of secret bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to strike at Al Qaeda offshoots in the region.
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Yet, as the United Nations has warned, drone strikes are at the heart of a contentious, clandestine American policy of “targeted killings” — including that of Osama bin Laden earlier this year by U.S. special forces — that would lead to anarchy if other countries were to claim the same sweeping authority to target people anywhere, at any time. That worry is feeding demands for agreed-on rules of the road.
It’s a concern that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government should share, given Canada’s role in founding the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and in shaping the landmine ban. The world can use some creative diplomacy on this issue.
Some guidelines were suggested by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, in a report last year. Countries that resort to targeted killings should publicly justify their actions under international law. They should also explain how and why individual targets are selected, and why they must be killed rather than captured. They should explain what efforts they make to avoid civilian casualties. And the countries involved should disclose whether they consented, and why. When civilians are killed, that too should be made known.
Bottom line? Countries that invoke self-defence to legitimize targeted killings should not throw such a veil of secrecy over operations that they can’t be held accountable for the results.