The motive for writing this piece is a Study Guide I was assigned to prepare for a conference I will be chairing in. One of the topics of my committee (Disarmament and International Security) is “Assessing the Legality of Targeted Killings”
Our world is undergoing a period of crisis; a crisis like none other. This crisis is not of the form of a nation to nation crisis such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Imia Crisis, and the Munich Crisis. This crisis is of the form of few people trying to take on an entire nation, fighting from the shadows and the cover of the internet. No longer can states track the movement of enemy forces so as to prepare for an incoming attack, or be able to negotiate a deal with another nation that promotes peace and democracy. States are faced with the challenge of fighting with people that their life goal is to spread fear throughout the world. Common sense does not exist and diplomacy cannot work to achieve a diplomatic solution. Slowly, states have found new ways of trying to solve this new crisis, ways which are of questionable justification and move away from the spirit of the United Nations and get closer to the spirit of the same non-state actors they are trying to eliminate. This new, violent, solution of targeted killings to the issue of non-state actors is the topic of this study guide and the task we are faced with as members of GA1 is to tackle the legitimacy of such action.
Since 2004 in Pakistan a total of 423 strikes have been carried out, killing 2.500 militants and 1.000 civilians. For some countries, this ratio of 2.5 militants for each civilian casualty is worth it. However, what is usually done is that killed men are regarded as militants unless evidence shows otherwise. It can thus be assumed that the ratio of 2.5 is much lower. Furthermore, of the 2.500 killed, only 84 of those were members of al-Qaeda, the organization the United States want to dismantle following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Thus, great inefficiency is evident in these types of operations that also come at a great cost of civilian life.
What is important, however, is that these organizations do not just pop up and when they are dismantled or eliminated by these strikes, all is well. What happens is that firstly, the remaining members of eliminated organizations join other organizations or found new ones. Secondly, both previous and current wars in the Middle East have brought about the rise of many non-state actor organizations with the unfortunate aim of spreading violence in all corners of the world. Thus, a vicious circle is observed in the region, with many countries trying to solve a problem with means that cause even more problems and lead to the rise of many new organizations with the same unfortunate aims. History has shown us that following the same path as we have been doing till now will only worsen the problem. An example of this is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the downfall of Al Qaeda.
Is there a solution that will leave all parties satisfied? Unfortunately, not…A better method is required that makes the minimum amount of compromises in such a delicate issue. A balance must be found between achieving the goal of eliminating the non-state actors that pose an immediate threat and minimizing the problems caused by such strikes. Where the solutions must start, however, is to define the cases where countries can use these strikes, eliminating the legal vagueness that leaves states uncontrollable.
The Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations have all tried to justify their use of drones under both domestic and international laws. In the domestic area, the justification lies in the 2001 “Authorization for the Use of Military Force”. The authorization allows the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” to pursuit those responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The White House maintains that the right of the US to self-defence, as laid out in Article 51 of the UN charter, may include the targeted killing of persons who are planning attacks, such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders, setting the international precedent for the use of drones. According to CIA director John Brennan the steps for authorizing a targeted strike include “deciding if the target is a significant threat to U.S. interests, being cognizant of state sovereignty issues, having high confidence in the target’s identity and that innocent civilians will not be harmed, and, finally, engaging in an additional review process if the individual is a U.S. citizen.
Other countries that use drones also follow the same process when ordering a strike. The general take on these legal considerations is that countries don’t carefully consider all factors when ordering a strike, something that leads many times to civilians being killed in vain.
The United Nations itself has been in a peculiar position when regards to the issue of targeted killings since on the one hand it condemns violence against other nations and breaches of sovereignty, but, on the other hand, nations have continuously taken advantage of phrasings in the charter of the United Nations and the International Law in order to justify their attacks. Due to the complex nature of he issue, any solutions must be formed in a way that is going to be appealing both to those who use drones and to those that are against them. What those against the use of drones are opposed to, is the civilian casualties that come from the continued drone strikes and the “targeted” nature of the attacks. Thus, it is important for the international community to come together in a conference and organize an international legal framework that would ensure that all precautions have been considered, prior to authorizing a drone strike, and that attacks are carried out only when there is sufficient evidence to showcase that a high priority target has been located. Furthermore, in this conference, the vagueness in the UN charter must be mended so as to limit the cases where nations “read the law” and justify themselves and their use of drone strikes. Finally, the international law should always be kept in mind in these conversations.
Summarizing, the world is in a very peculiar position when regards to targeted killings. Terrorists have upped their game, compared to 20 years ago. States respond to this, in order not to have any casualties, by using technology to their own benefit. However, technology and, most importantly, aerial vehicles are much more inaccurate in their operations compared to humans with a gun, leading to many civilian casualties in vain. It is the case, though, that nations will not stop using these means of targeted killings. Therefore, the international community has to ensure that when those strikes that are authorized, they are authorized having all factors in mind, so as to ensure that (if civilians lives are to be lost) the least amount of casualties is caused.