Obama, drones and Just War

Conventional Weapons, News

By Karina Sangha

U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on counterterrorism delivered this past Thursday has drawn both praise and criticism from domestic and international commentators. While the speech touched on a number of controversial issues, the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill terrorists in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen occupied centre stage. Following months of criticism, Obama defended his administration’s use of drone strikes in what he considers to be a “just war” against global terrorism.

More readily found in the pages of academic books than the speeches of national leaders, the idea of just war has a long history. The most comprehensive and enduring account of what constitutes a just war can be found in Just War Theory (JWT), which is generally thought to consist of three sets of criteria:

1) Jus ad bellum: when is it just to resort to war?

 2) Jus in bello: what is morally acceptable within war?

 3) Jus post bellum: what does justice look like after war?

In invoking the idea of just war, Obama seems to be referring to the nature of the war itself, focusing on jus ad bellum. Indeed, in making his claim, Obama references three standard jus ad bellum criteria: just cause, proportionality, and last resort. Whether or not the United States’ current War on Terror satisfies these criteria is open to debate, but even more important when discussing the administration’s recurrent drone strikes is whether the United States’ conduct within this “war” is just. Put differently, even if the country has the right to target terrorists, this tells us very little about the morality of its drone strikes. Is there anything about this new military technology or the way the U.S. has used it that violates the idea of just war?

To answer this question, we need to turn our attention to the criteria of jus in bello. Two criteria seem relevant here: proportionality and discrimination. The criterion of proportionality can be summarized as the minimum force needed to achieve a military objective, and the criterion of discrimination requires combatants to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets when using force. It is generally accepted that combatants and their associated institutions, such as their equipment stores, barracks, and training areas, can be targeted because they are directly engaged in harming the opposing side. Conversely, non-combatants are immune. Of course, warfare is often chaotic and some non-combatants will inevitably be harmed. The key is that such harm must never be intentional, and it must always be proportional to the military gain.

Some of the most common critiques of the U.S. drone program, and drones more generally, have centred on these two criteria. In particular, concerns have been raised as to the ability of drones to effectively discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Based on data drawn from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the percentage of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 could be as high as 25 percent. As a growing number of U.S. officials are starting to believe that al-Qaeda no longer poses a serious threat to U.S. security, a 25 percent civilian death rate hardly seems proportional to the amount of security gained.

To be sure, the data on this topic lacks reliability. The main databases that track U.S. drone strikes present different numbers, employ different methodologies, and lack access to fully reliable sources. Further, even if the numbers are as high as the TBIJ indicates, this does not necessarily point to a flaw in drones. In principle, drones can fly closer to their targets than piloted planes, allowing for a greater degree of accuracy than other technologies may allow. Of course, accurate drone strikes require strong intelligence on the ground. This may be something the U.S. is currently lacking.

Fortunately, in addition to defending drones, Obama has also recognized the potential shortcomings of his administration’s drone program. On the eve of the speech, the administration published more restrictive rules governing the use of force against terrorists, including a preference for capturing targeted individuals, striking only when an individual poses a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” and ensuring there is “near certainty” that civilians will not be harmed. If followed, these rules could help ensure the country’s compliance with the criteria of jus in bello and help satisfy the numerous opponents of the drone program. Hopefully, last week’s speech will move beyond rhetoric and produce tangible results moving forward.

Karina Sangha is currently working on her master’s in international relations at the University of Waterloo.

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