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Drone strikes: Are they legal or not?

Drones are becoming more and more common in our daily lives, from dji to amazon delivery drones. However, drones are not only used to take aerial photographs; in recent years, they have been used as military weapons. So, if they are being used in war zones, why do we rarely hear about them?

A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014 KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

A man walking past a graffiti painted on a wall in Sanaa, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen (source: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTER)

Drones have not been in use in war for long, but it has caused a lot of controversy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Obama administration conducted 10 times more drone strikes than the Bush administration, with a number totalling 563 strikes, killing 384 to 807 civilians across Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It is inevitable that we will only see an increasing use of drones as a form of military weaponry. Just last week, the Trump administration conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan's Paktika province, killing Qari Yaseen.

Is this all legal?

According to Article 51 of the UN charter, drone strikes are legal ‘if a targeted state agrees to the use of force in its territory, or the targeted group operating within its territory was responsible for an act of aggression against the targeting state where the host state is unwilling or unable to control the threat themselves’.

States such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have officially consented to US drone strikes within their countries, as they are unable to control terrorist groups, making this all legal. This poses the question of who is responsible when civilians die as a result of US drone strikes approved by their own government: the US or the nation that has given its consent?

However, there is a slippery slope to this because firstly, under international human rights law, ‘the targeted individual must pose an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent’. Therefore, simply being suspected of some connection to a ‘militant group’ is not legally sufficient to make them a target for killing by drone strikes. Secondly, According to Article 6(1) of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (The multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations), states that ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life,’ even in times of armed conflicts. Therefore, since the United States is not technically in an armed conflict with ‘militant’ groups, their actions through drone strikes are unlawful. Amnesty international says that drone strikes can be classified as ‘war crimes’ or illegal extrajudicial executions”. Furthermore, in July 18, 2013, according to Pew Research, of the 39 countries surveyed, only six countries approved of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

This means that it is really difficult to know whether US led drones strikes are legal or not because international law can be manipulated to suit the needs of different people and nations. This poses the question of, are civilians really in control of their own lives/destiny or are they being controlled by their own governments?

Furthermore, US drone strikes are legal under US law because under Article II of the US constitution, presidential powers include the right to use of force against an imminent threat without congressional approval. In addition, in 2001 congress passes the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF states that the president is ‘authorised to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or personals he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harboured such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.’ additionally, the AUMF has no geographic boundary, thus this has been used by all US presidents since President George H.W. Bush to justify US drone strikes abroad, making it legal under US law. Moreover, strikes by the CIA, which is responsible for approximately, 80% of all US drone strikes abroad, are classified information under US law title 50, thus giving the CIA leeway to not acknowledge the its drone program anywhere in the world. This makes it really difficult for us to know what is really going on!

Who has been affected?

According to a meta-study of drone strikes, between 8-17% of all people killed in drone strikes are civilians. Following the 9/11 terror attacks, it is estimated that between 174 - 1,047 civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia by US led drone strikes. Furthermore, researchers at Stanford and New York University conducted 130 interviews with victims and witnesses of drone strikes, who said that they are in constant fear of drone strikes and prefered a grey sky over blue skies as drones cannot fly when visibility is low. Furthermore, according to Clive Stafford Smith, director of human rights organization Reprieve, ‘an entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involved gathering in groups.’

Although American soldiers conducting the strikes are not on the ground fighting, they still get affected by several problems including: lack of a clear separation between combat and personal/family life; ‘existential conflict’ brought on by the guilt and remorse of being an ‘areal sniper’; and social isolation during work, which could diminish unit cohesion and increase chances of being affected by PTSD according to a study by the US Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine, department of Neuropsychiatry. Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, out of the 709 drone pilots who were studies, 8.2% reported at least one adverse mental health outcome, most commonly related to adjusting to reentry into civilian society, depression, and relationship problems. This poses the question of whether the US military should increase the number of drone pilots or increase the number of soldiers they send to fight on the ground?

However, according to a July 18, 2013 survey by Pew research, 61% of Americans support US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Furthermore, the support for US drone strikes is one of the only areas that unite people with opposing political views, with 69% Republicans, 60% independent and 59% democrats supporting US Drone strikes abroad. Is this the only issue that will unite them all at a time of increasing political divide?

Finally, this poses the question, is it right for the American government to get involved in other nation’s conflicts and direct drone strikes across the world? And if wars today already don’t need to involve humans on the ground fighting then what will the future of war be like?

If you guys are interested in finding out more about drone strikes, or want to follow what is happening in the world of drone warfare, follow the links below:

Drone War (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

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