Focus on Research: Drone strikes: Legal weapon against terror or violation of the right to life?

A Predator drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A growing fleet of U.S. spy planes and drones in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere alllows Air Force analysts to gather intelligence without ground combat troops.
A Predator drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A growing fleet of U.S. spy planes and drones in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere alllows Air Force analysts to gather intelligence without ground combat troops. TNS

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

The people who lived in the area heard the metallic buzzing sound before and knew what it meant. According to witnesses, a massive explosion engulfed three cars traveling in opposite directions along a narrow, two-lane road in Yemen. The drone operator who executed the strike from the United States likely heard no sound, but, within seconds of its signal, watched on his screen the white flash that obscured the cars destroyed by the rocket.

Four people, including the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, were killed after the drone hit two of the cars. In the third car, the one vehicle that was not a target of the attack, a noncombatant civilian lay dead.

This drone strike took place in March 2012 and was one of more than 100 such strikes the United States has conducted in Yemen since 2002. According to New America, a Washington-based organization that cobbles together such data “from credible news sources,” 708 to 945 militants and 81 to 87 Yemeni civilians have been killed since the American program of drone attacks began. The United States government will neither confirm nor deny these figures. American military operations in Yemen are shrouded in official secrecy.

The question is this: Did the United States, with this March 2012 drone attack in Yemen, violate an international human rights law by which it and 167 other nations are legally bound?

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush granted the CIA wide-ranging authority to conduct capture-or-kill missions, like this one, of suspected al-Qaida members and other suspected terrorists around the world. Making it clear that the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” it wasn’t long before the first unmanned armed drone aircraft began flying missions over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Drones, or remotely piloted aircraft, initially were developed for reconnaissance missions. They have been deployed by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies since the mid-1990s to gather real-time video and radar imagery in countries including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Serbia, Somalia and Yemen. The United States conducted its first drone strike in November 2002 in Yemen, and, between 2002 and 2013, conducted more than 450 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, according to media reports.

Proponents of the U.S. drone program contend that the technology actually minimizes the risk to civilians during wartime, allowing the remote pilots and weapons operators to more readily identify targets and discern civilians from armed militants. Critics, however, argue that U.S. drone strikes are illegal under international law protecting the right to life.

The law most often cited by drone detractors is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II to protect civilians from being killed arbitrarily. Article 6 of the ICCPR states that “every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

There are, of course, exceptions to the law, most notably during times of war or in acts of self-defense, which is precisely the argument used by supporters of the U.S. drone program. They contend that the United States is executing a global war on terror that allows for the unprecedented use of drone technology to target terrorists and those who harbor terrorists wherever they may happen to be on this planet, effectively making the entire world a battlefield in this war.

The Obama Administration also defended targeted drone killings under Article 51 of the U.N. charter, which spells out when states may act in self-defense. The government contends that it has the right to target individuals who are planning attacks against U.S. interests in and out of the theater of war.

This argument “does grave damage to the international legal frameworks designed to protect the right to life,” according to a 2010 statement by Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “The serious challenges posed by terrorism are undeniable, but the fact that enemies do not play by the rules does not mean that the U.S. government can unilaterally re-interpret them or cast them aside.”

Reasonable minds can, and do, disagree about the legality of targeted killings via drone strikes, and the legal questions continue to loom. The most elemental of all solemnly enshrined international human rights is the right to life. This right is not only broadly recognized as the most elemental of all human rights, it is further the most universally embraced. Whether the U.S. drone program violates this most fundamental right is a debate that needs to be had as the global war on terror is waged into its 15th year.