“On Sep. 30, 2011, a two year manhunt for al-Qaeda recruiter, Yemeni imam, and United States citizen Anwar al-Awlaki culminated in a drone strike ordered by President Barack Obama. Also killed in the attack was Samir Khan, another U.S. citizen who was not specifically targeted, but happened to be traveling with Awlaki at the time. The strike marked the first time that drones were used to execute American citizens without due process,” writes Ryan Kelley, a William and Mary student, in his award winning essay “The Monitor,” the College’s highly regarded journal of international relations.
Kelley, continued: “The drone strike was met with widespread praise in the media, and it was reported that Obama joked in the Roosevelt Room, ‘Turns out I’m very good at killing people.’ Since then at last five other U.S. citizens, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, have been killed in drone strikes, all accidentally.”
In his essay, Kelley explained that the first targeted killing by an American drone took place in February 2002, ordered by President George W. Bush. The program was in its infancy under the Bush administration, but as the weapons system on the flying vehicles improved, drone strikes became the weapon of choice against al-Qaeda and were used in countries across the Middle East and Africa, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Under the Trump administration, the drone program was expanded substantially. It was reported that drone attacks would be used also for lower-level targets. Some countries have been highly critical of the way drone strikes are executed within their territories. “The United States has responded with legal arguments appealing to a state of war that exists between itself and global terrorism, using this framework to justify its use of drones inside of countries that are critical of the program,” Kelley wrote.
There is an intense debate going on among legal scholars whether the United States is justified in its method of using drones in its fight with terrorist groups. According to the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in order for the United States’ legal basis for conducting its drone strikes to be legitimate, there must be sufficient armed violence between the United States and al-Qaeda.
The United Nations no longer considers al-Qaeda an organized group, which is a requirement for drone strikes to be considered part of an “armed conflict.” Nevertheless, most scholarship on the legality of drone strikes under international law still seems to take for granted that the U.S. and al-Qaeda are engaged in an armed conflict. And, by all indications, the use of armed drones in future conflicts will increase.
It was pointed out that drones kill smaller numbers of civilians than other military options. A survey in Pakistan’s tribal areas showed that many residents view individual drone strikes as preferable to the artillery barrages of the Pakistani military.
It is taken for granted that drone strikes are necessary for self-defense. It is often implied that international humanitarian and human rights law do not apply to this kind of use of force.
Nevertheless, Kelley, quoting from a U.N. report, points out that no coherent legal argument could be made to support “self defense” as a justification for violating international humanitarian laws.
If the past is a prologue for the future, no matter what scholars of international laws say, drones, experts maintain, will become an increasingly potent component of future warfare.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.