Friday, January 8, 2010

Do predator drone attacks constitute war crimes?

Obama has been criticized for backing away from the phrase "war on terror."  Thursday, he acknowledged that the nation remains at war, calling it a "war on al-Qaida."  - Detroit News
Obama now talks in terms of waging "war" against terrorists.  But does this word reflect the president's actual approach to the conflict?  Consider:
  • Traditionally "war" has entailed some degree of personal risk to the combatants themselves (most acts of terrorism even resemble war in this respect).  
  • In modern times, unlike terrorism, the conduct of war has been governed by laws of war intended to afford protection to non-combatants. 
Predator drone attacks do not conform to these notions we have about war.  This much is apparent when we look at the mortality statistics or  contemplate the likelihood of error when predator drones strike.

Mortality Stats
According to Pakistani* sources, more Pakistani civilians were killed by drone attacks in 2009 than during the balance of the Bush Administration:
  • Jan 09 - Dec. 09: 44 drone strikes, 05 dead terrorists, 700 dead civilians***
  • Jan 06 - Dec. 08: 46 drone strikes, 14 dead terrorists, 535 dead civilians**
Rick B of Ten Percent calculates that the ratio of dead civilians to dead terrorists was under 50:1 under President Bush, but appears to have risen to 140:1 under President Obama.

Likelihood of Error
Obama may not be entirely responsible for the increase in the frequency of attacks. What changed?   According to Newsweek (here and here): the summer of 2008 George W. Bush approved new, more permissive rules of engagement along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Pentagon once required "90 percent" confidence on the part of U.S. intelligence that a "high-value target" was present at a particular place at a particular time before approving a Predator strike on Pakistani territory.  As a result of the rule change approved by Bush last year, however, U.S. officials need to have only 50 to 60 percent confidence to shoot missiles at compounds suspected of sheltering "foreign fighters."
People in this region are bound to judge the United States more by its actions than anything its president says.    The routine, indiscriminately deadly, and arguably reckless (50-60% confidence) use of predator drones over Pakistan speaks to the values of America's leaders.

Historical perspective
Do predator drone attacks constitute war crimes?  Let's imagine how history is likely to answer this question. Recall that chemical weapons were not banned until after they had been used on the battlefields of Europe by major powers.  Similarly,  nuclear weapons acquired their stigma only after they had been used against Japanese civilians by the United States.  I suspect  that once the new weapons of aerial assassination start to be deployed by various non-Western countries, these kinds of attacks will come to be classified as a crime against humanity.

Because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
* Although numbers from American sources (i.e. Peter Bergan of NAF) will  differ somewhat, a high number of civilian casualties is acknowledged.   If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Jane Meyer's New Yorker article, Predator War.   
* * (The News, h/t Rick)   *** (Dawn, h/t Rick)

1 comment:

  1. Just as much as use of nuclear,chemical,or biological weapons. The lack of personal risk makes murder casual and indiscriminate. When the shoe's on the other foot, so to speak,this will be decried as "terrorism", but history shows that the folks who were responsible for using the atomic bomb have a long history of genocide and other 'war crimes' to draw upon. Karma Rules, but it usually rolls over more innocents then the guilty when the Wheel comes 'round.


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