Drones are in the news again, for a couple of reasons.
One is that this week the U.N. released two important reports on the use of drones in armed conflict. (The final versions will be published next year.) One is on extrajudicial killings, the other on human rights in counterterrorism.
The reports both question the legal justification the Obama administration has put forth for its targeting practices: the idea of co-belligerency. The idea is that, if one country attacked the U.S., and then a second country allied with that first one, the U.S. would be justified in fighting either in self-defense. So, the argument goes, since Al Qaeda has attacked the U.S., organizations that ally with Al Qaeda likewise would present legitimate targets for U.S. forces.
The U.N. reports challenge this assertion by arguing that non-state actors like Al Qaeda and affiliated groups lack the command structure to be considered co-belligerents, and that in many cases their violent conflict with the U.S. have not reached a level that warrants being considered an armed conflict.
The Just Security blog has an interesting post about how the U.N.’s interpretation could have negative impacts on human rights and humanitarian protections. You should read it, because it is relatively short and breaks their argument down better than I could do.
However, the report also delved into the issue of civilian casualties from drone strikes, one the administration has always been keen to downplay.
In Pakistan alone, there are reports that of the 2,200 people killed in 330+ drone strikes, at least 400 may have been civilians.
And of course, there remains the problem of transparency. Having the CIA operate drones makes accountability for civilian casualties virtually impossible.
That also leads us to our next fun twist in this tale: the NSA’s involvement in the targeted killing program. So far, it seems to be another indication of how little we know about how the targeted killing program works.