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US Drones On

us drones

On 17th May, news slowly broke out across the world, that yet again the United States of America, in all its wisdom and respect for human life had targeted potential 'Islamist militants' in Yemen. News reports were unclear as to whether those killed were local militants, local terrorists or international terrorists, nor did they give any indication to the number of civilians killed.

So why am I bothering to write about the demise of terrorists? That is part of the problem; false media coverage has consistently pounded us, to the extent that we are prepared to believe any Muslim is a potential terrorist and that all potential terrorists are better dead. This breaks the golden rule of Islamic Shariah, as well as western democratic law, that is: everybody is innocent until proven guilty and it is the responsibility of the accuser to bring prosecuting evidence, not for the defender to bring evidence of innocence.

In recent years we have grown accustomed to hearing of drone strikes killing scores of people, largely civilians, first in Pakistan and now in Yemen and Somalia. These first strikes are often followed up by the more disturbing second strikes, in which the most people are murdered. These second strikes are fired at anybody who runs towards the initial target to investigate, or search for survivors, these are usually inquisitive children or those passing by. There have so far been 322 strikes just in Pakistan, where about 3113 people have died, about 821 of whom are civilians. The so called militants that are killed can never justify the demise of innocents. There is so much wrong with these strikes on different levels, but today we will focus only on the issue of legality, because until now, Washington hasn't even tried to legally justify its actions.

The first thing to address is, who makes the decision to attack? If this was a warzone e.g. Afghanistan, then the answer is simple; soldiers are given rules of engagement and when they are on the frontline they make the final decisions to complete the task; pilots are given their co-ordinates and its similar with naval-based cruise missiles.

However, neither Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen is a war-zone, therefore the decision, if it should ever be justified being made legally, ought to be made by a judiciary working on intelligence and providing the orders. What we have here is a decision made at the executive chambers of Washington, with little shady intelligence provided by the CIA (remember much of this may have been extracted through torture) or by the White House Counter Terror Chief John Brennan. The fact that there was no court involvement means that no warrant was ever produced.

So now we need to discuss what the law actually says about these assassinations. We live in a world where most countries have agreed on a set of laws binding each other to a set of standards, that we supposedly define as moral. The US has influenced and agreed to most of these laws. This means that we need to look at US law, International Humanitarian law as well as International Laws of War.

U.S. Law

Keeping this brief, in 1976 the then US President Gerald Ford, issued Executive Order 11905, Section 5 (g) prohibiting the United states government from undertaking or assisting the undertaking of any assassination both at home and abroad. The Oxford English dictionary defines assassination as “ murder (an important person) for political or religious reasons”. We have already established that the vast majority of these drone strikes are not strategic or aimed at specific military targets. They are used by the US government for political reasons and to appear to be doing something in order to gain votes. Thus under US law drone attacks are 100% illegal.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

IHL says that you can only use: “Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life”. There are other conditions given, but put simply use of lethal force outside of the battlefield only becomes legal when all other reasonable routes have not been exhausted and there is no imminent threat to mass loss of life. What we see with these drone attacks is that no attempt of arrest or apprehension is made; killing is the first port of call, always. Not only that, but those killed do not even qualify as legitimate targets, a bunch of men with AKs and RPGs in the back of a Hilux do not pose the threat “of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life” in the United states.

Laws of War (LOW)

Over the years there have been many treaties signed constituting the LOW, probably the most famous of which are the Geneva conventions. Convention 4 states that :
Article 48 -Basic rule-
''In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

The USA is not above the law, the second strikes mentioned previously are not just disgusting and immoral, they are plain and simple, illegal and by law there are requirements to have investigations into the legality of these attacks. The brazen killing of civilians constitutes a war crime. We only ever find out about civilian deaths when there is something particularly shocking, or when there happens to be a journalist nearby to take photographs. The US does not have any real system of accountability for its armed forces, where mistakes are usually covered up. Attacks carried out by the CIA are always kept ambiguous under the cover of ‘classified information’. In short there is no doubt that the drone attacks carried out in recent years are illegal and very often constitute war crimes.

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