Parsing the Anti-Drone Debate

12 November 2013, 1406 EST

As captured in the final images of this important new documentary, there seem to be at least three different debates going on about drones:

The first is reflected in a recent op-ed titled “Five Ways Obama Could Fix Drones Right Now.” Here, Sarah Holewinski of CIVIC and Larry Lewis, a Center for Naval Analyses researcher whose classified data on drone deaths made headlines a few months back, argue that the US’ drone strike policy is ok on its merits but could be far more humane, both in measures taken to reduce collateral damage and restorative justice for civilians harmed in drone attacks. First, by taking drones out of CIA hands, and letting war-law-trained DOD folks handle the program, the US increases the chances of hitting militants instead of the civilians. Second, in cases where civilians are harmed, the US government could do far more to acknowledge, atone for and make amends for that harm. (Condolence payments would be helpful, but so would mere acknowledgement: the fact that only five Congresspersons showed up to hearing of drone strike survivors who had traveled from Pakistan to brief US policymakers is an embarrassing example of how far the US has to go in this regard.)

This is in stark contrast to a view reflected in this new report co-authored by two human rights heavyweights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which suggests that the US drone strike policy itself is probably unethical and illegal irrespective of the collateral damage problem. Even if the US hit only the targets it is aiming for – high-value targets and their associated ‘suspected militants’ – this violates international rules against the arbitrary deprivation of life when undertaken outside a conventional battlefield. The issue here is extrajudicial executions – an issue bigger than Pakistan and bigger than drones.

In even greater contrast to Holewinski/Lewis’ argument is a consortium of NGOs who argue weaponized drones should be banned altogether – whether or not they are used for targeted killings or for lawful military operations. This argument draws on a frame soup of arguments having to do with the psychological costs of “joystick warrioring,” the fear that drones make war easier, the slippery slope toward automated killing, the civilian body count problem, and the general public fear of “flying killer robots,” on top of the opprobrium against targeted killings that this movement shares with the mainstream human rights community. While I do not see this as a campaign that is likely to pick up speed among international elites and result in an actual drone ban anytime soon for several reasons, it is notable that for a large number of civil society organizations the key policy solution is to ban drones altogether rather than use them more lawfully.

In my view, all these arguments have some merit but the most important thing to focus on is the issue of extrajudicial killing, rather than the means used to do it, for two reasons. First, if the US ended its targeted killings policy this would effectively stop the use of weaponized drones in the war on terror, whereas the opposite is not the case; and it would effectively remove the CIA from involvement with drones. It would thus limit weaponized drones to use in regular armed conflicts that might arise in the future, and only at the hands of trained military personnel. If Holewinski and Lewis are right, this will drastically reduce civilian casualties from drones.

Either of the other two approaches don’t really resolve the problem. The “minimize collateral damage” problem rests on the assumption that the only important civilian casualties here are those being hit accidentally, when civilians are being directly targeted by the US in violation of the laws of war and international human rights law. The “ban drones” argument acknowledges the problem of targeted killings, but ironically would allow targeted killings to proceed apace, with concomittant collateral damage, so long as they take place from manned aircraft or ground artillery. Only an approach that puts the blame on targeted killings rather than drones per se will solve the problem as the civilian-protection and anti-drone crowd see it.

In fact it is probably essential to de-link these two problems. The irony then is that the groups making the anti-targeted-killing argument are still making it through the lens of “drones” instead of “stop targeted killing” with drone strikes as but one pernicious example of a wider, more distinct problem. I find this strategy of engaging with the drone debate through drones rather than through the larger problem of which they are an example fascinating, and can’t really explain it. What are your thoughts?