Imagine if North Korea or Iran or Venezuela deployed thousands of unmanned surveillance aircraft in search of earthbound enemies, a swarm of robotic hunters armed with lethal weaponry and their governments’ go-ahead to exterminate targets.
It’s a frightening scenario but far from an unimaginable one, given that dozens of nations now build, program and deploy their own drones.
Newly disclosed U.S. guidelines on drone warfare appear to authorize a more permissive practice of targeted killings in the global fight against terrorism than previously articulated. And the Obama administration’s embrace of a right to strike those it has identified as threats to U.S. security has prompted warnings from rights advocates and international security experts that the White House is setting a dangerous precedent that rogue nations could follow.
The U.S. military and intelligence communities have increasingly turned to drones for precision strikes against terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, executing more than 300 remote-controlled attacks during President Obama’s first term. That is a sixfold increase from the Bush administration’s use of drones, according to the British nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Muting any serious debate on the morality and legality of targeted killings is the U.S. public’s positive response to the arm's-length attacks that eliminate terrorism suspects without putting troops at risk in a more conventional offensive. More than 80% of Americans expressed support for the administration’s drone policy in a Washington Post-ABC News poll a year ago. A Pew Research Center survey in June showed similarly high regard among Americans questioned but majority disapproval among respondents in 19 other countries surveyed.
Escalating U.S. drone use in counter-terrorism is both hurting the country’s image and raising the stakes in what promises to be a protracted war to defeat the global network of militants bent on doing America harm, security and legal experts argue.
“Technological capabilities are developing far faster than the laws and international frameworks to regulate their use,” said Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former National Security Council staffer under President Clinton.
Drone use was a rare and almost exclusively U.S. military capability a decade ago, Zegart said, yet today at least 70 countries have unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as drones are called in security parlance. Although most of that use is aimed at reducing the costs and risks of intelligence-gathering and search-and-rescue missions, the increasingly affordable and versatile aircraft can be programmed for combat as easily as for peaceful civilian uses.
Despite a credible threat of spreading drone warfare, there is little interest among the nations employing the devices to yield to any agreed rules of engagement, Zegart said.
“The question is, can the United States lead by example? Can we realistically put forward policies and ideas” that would establish permissible uses and prevent a perilous free-for-all, she said, intimating that such self-imposed restraint is unlikely.
Avner Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, agrees there is little incentive for countries making the most aggressive use of drones -- the United States and Israel first among them -- to impose restrictions on themselves.
He points to what he sees as “seductive” elements of drone use as a danger for both international security and thoughtful decision-making.
Israeli drone surveillance pinpointed Hamas militia leader Ahmed Jabari in the Gaza Strip in November, encouraging the Israeli leadership to order a targeted killing in a likely streamlined analysis of potential consequences, Cohen recalled. Jabari’s death set off eight days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian enclave that ended with a cease-fire seen as having strengthened Hamas and Palestinian cohesion.
“The temptation to use it is so high that it can obscure and overpower all kinds of other considerations,” Cohen said of drones’ offensive capabilities.
Human rights and international law advocates have expressed growing concern that Washington’s expanding use of targeted killings by drones violates its obligations to treaties guaranteeing protection of civilian life and prohibiting extrajudicial killings off the battlefield.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, announced two weeks ago that he was investigating U.S. strikes on suspected terrorists to evaluate their compliance with human rights treaties and the international law of armed conflict.
Rights groups contend the U.S. actions stray far beyond the limited circumstances under which international accords allow the use of preemptive lethal force.
“When the U.S. government violates international law, that sets a precedent and provides an excuse for the rest of the world to do the same,” said Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign.
“We have now seen, under two administrations, the emergence of a claimed global war framework in which the U.S. tries to treat the whole world as a battlefield, to the exclusion of human rights law,” Johnson said.
“I sincerely doubt most members of the U.S. government would be happy with China or Russia or North Korea using drones and lethal force the way the U.S. government is doing, which is outside the bounds of international law,” said Johnson.
“Everyone should be concerned by the idea that any government can basically deny its human rights obligations,” he warned. “That puts all of us at greater risk in the long run.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.