Whichever candidate is elected president of the United States next week already has his work cut out for him. As international condemnation for the Obama administration’s drone attacks grows, the new president will have to answer to UN investigations into civilian deaths caused by U.S. drone attacks.
Just last week, Ben Emmerson QC, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, announced that next year in Geneva, an investigation unit will commence to examine the legality of drone attacks in cases where civilians were killed in so-called "targeted" counterterrorism operations. Emmerson’s colleague, Christof Heyns (UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings), had warned earlier in the year that some drone strikes may even constitute “war crimes,” and that the attacks encourage other states to breach international human rights standards.
Obama’s tenure as U.S. president over the last four years has established what Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times and David Rohde, a columnist at Reuters who was kidnapped by the Taliban, have called the “Obama doctrine.” They have pointed out how Obama has expanded the administration’s ability to wage a high-tech and clandestine war, with little regard for international borders or disclosure of the mechanisms through which kill lists are drawn up.
Due to the Obama administration’s refusal to disclose details about the program, there are no official numbers for militants killed by drone strikes available. However, the New American Foundation estimates that in Pakistan alone, drone strikes have killed between 1,908 and 3,225 people since 2004. Out of this number, about 85% were reported to be militants, leaving between 290 and 456 non-militant casualties. Slate offers a visual representation of these numbers.
Other than Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes have also killed targets in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya. On Monday, news reports surfaced that drone strikes – the fourth in Yemen in October – had killed “3 Qaeda suspects.” However, there is no way to ascertain whom these targets were and if they were civilians or not.
In fact, little is known as to how the Obama administration draws up its kill list. A recent Washington Post article reveals some degree of the chilling coordination between the White House, the military, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other agencies which goes into defining a “kill” list through a “disposition matrix.”
Nonetheless, the exact details remain a secret that President Obama and his top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, have defended keeping. “We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing [emphasis my own],” says Brennan.
But a report detailing the collateral damage that comes with these “specific” and “targeted” killings, released by human rights lawyers at New York University and Stanford University presents testimony from Pakistani civilians, shows otherwise. The report, Living Under Drones, presents some of the humanitarian, psychological, and social costs of these strikes. Its website also outlines several ways in which the U.S. may have contravened Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. Article 2(4) prohibits the use of force by one state against another, except when carried out with the consent of the host state (see General Assembly Resolution 36/103) and when it is in self-defense to an imminent threat (see Article 51); the lawyers dispute both these exceptions.
Additionally, the report features testimonies from relatives of rescuers, teenagers, and mourners who were killed by drone strikes in a practice called “double tap,” where a targeted site is hit multiple times in relatively quick succession. Civilians living under drones also reported that they suffer from symptoms of anticipatory anxiety, a result of continuously listening to the “hissing” noise of drones flying over their villages, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadly, the elections on November 6 will change little about the nature of the U.S. drones program. Moderator Bob Schieffer’s comment at the last debate that “we know President Obama’s position on [drones]” comes across as rather ironic, given that there is little that Obama is willing to disclose.
But a Romney presidency will not change much. When asked by Schieffer about his position on drones, Romney answered, “I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.”
Regardless of next week’s election result, two things are certain. Firstly, there are already plans to expand the fleet of U.S. armed drones. Secondly, by next year, the U.S. may face international repercussions from the UN’s investigations into civilian deaths caused by its drone strikes.