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Yemeni boy walks past a mural reading  "Why did you kill my family?” in the capital Sanaa last year. Civilians have often been the victims of the U.S. military in Yemen, but accountability for such deaths is nearly impossible to come by. (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Trust Reality Rather Than President Obama's Words on Drones

Jeff Bachman

"As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've...worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained." —President Obama

A message to President Obama: saying something does not make it so. How does killing people, so many of them innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, with missiles launched from drones by "pilots" thousands of miles away, demonstrate respect for human dignity and the application of "proper" constraints?

Let's consider all the ways in which Obama's drone assassination program undermines "human dignity" and lacks proper constraints. To do so, one need only consider the many reports that have been entered into the public record by United Nations Special Rapporteurs, human rights organizations, and academic institutions.

In May 2010, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. In his report, Alston noted that some states, including the U.S., had adopted targeted killing policies, which they have justified as necessary for fighting terrorism. According to Alston, "In the legitimate struggle against terrorism, too many criminal acts have been re-characterized so as to justify addressing them within the framework of the law of armed conflict."

Relatively early into Obama's escalation of the use of drones, Alston made the case that organized criminal activities were being intentionally redefined by the administration as acts of war in order to justify the application of the laws of war to the drone assassination program. In other words, rather than enact "proper" constraints, the Obama administration unilaterally decided to apply the laws of war to its drone strikes to allow it to kill anyone it deemed targetable, whether or not the targets posed an imminent threat. Further, by applying the laws of war, rather than human rights law, the Obama administration has ensured there would be weaker legal, though certainly not moral, criteria regarding the loss of innocent life.

In September 2012, Stanford Law School's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU School of Law's Global Justice Clinic published a report, "Living Under Drones." Through their research, the clinics found that the presence of drones hovering in Pakistan's airspace:

...Terrorizes men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves....Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school....In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.

Obama's drone assassination program represents an unequivocal assault on human dignity. It has literally altered the behavior and livelihood of civilians living in the areas being attacked. The clinics also document the administration's use of what are referred to as double-taps: "The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims." Such constraint!

Also in 2012, Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict produced a report titled "The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions." The report is especially critical of the lack of transparency from the Obama administration. The authors write:

While our analysis is circumscribed by our limited information about US covert drone operations, what we know suggests there are potential short- and long-term impacts that policymakers have not considered, and which negatively impact civilians.

In 2013, Amnesty International (AI) published a report on drone strikes in Pakistan and Human Rights Watch (HRW) published two reports on drone strikes in Yemen. In its report, AI criticized the Obama administration for its refusal to "provide even basic information on particular strikes." However, based on the information available to it from its investigation, AI expressed its concern "that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes." I was not aware until now that one could simultaneously execute individuals without judicial review, and/or commit war crimes, while also employing proper constraints.

HRW's reports included similar findings to that of AI. HRW investigated six strikes in Yemen. "Two of these attacks," according to HRW:

Were in clear violation of international humanitarian law -- the laws of war -- because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons. The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm, determinations that require further investigation. In several of these cases the US also did not take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, as the laws of war require.

HRW's second report documents an attack on a wedding party in Yemen. HRW found that "some, if not all, of those killed and wounded were civilians." HRW also stated that the attack "may have violated the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or by causing civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage." HRW also referenced Obama's claim that before any drone strikes are launched, there must be "near-certainty" that no civilians will be harmed, questioning whether this policy is being complied with. Can drones be properly constrained without taking all possible precautions to avoid civilian harm? Can a wedding convoy be attacked without also attacking the dignity of those in the convoy, as well as any others who might be planning a wedding of their own?

Also in 2013, Philip Alston's successor as UN Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyns,submitted a report to the UN General Assembly. In his report, Heyns notes that access to drones:

May lead to States, where they perceive their interests to be threatened, increasingly engaging in low-intensity but drawn-out applications of force that know few geographical or temporal boundaries. This would run counter to the notion that war -- and the transnational use of force in general -- must be of limited duration and scope, and that there should be a time of healing and recovery following conflict. Peace should be the norm, yet such scenarios risk making its derogation the rule by privileging force over long-term peaceful alternatives.

Apparently, perpetual war and human dignity can walk hand-in-hand.

Finally, in 2014, Reprieve produced a report titled, "You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the U.S. Drone Program." In the report, Reprieve focused on attempts to kill those included on Obama's "Kill List." Employing what Obama considers "proper" constraints, drone strikes killed 103 children in multiple attempts at killing only four men on this list. I shudder to think how many children would have been killed without proper constraints.

Despite all of the evidence that demonstrates how empty Obama's words are when it comes to the reality of the civilian impact of drone strikes, he somehow finds the nerve to continue the "trust me" defense. Apparently, we are simply expected to take Obama's word for it, even when the evidence suggests that his word is not worth the piece of paper (or teleprompter) it was written on.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Jeff Bachman

Jeff Bachman is a professor of human rights and co-director of Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University’s School of International Service.

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