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  • Alexandre Gomes

The legitimacy of drone warfare (or the lack thereof)

The whole world has its eyes on Ukraine, where a hideous attack, ordered by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, is taking place. It is not an exaggeration to say that the current events are the biggest threat to European peace since the end of World War II and that they will most likely provoke a rearrangement of the post-Cold War international order. The focus of this article will be on the intersection between technology and the ethics of war, namely the central role that armed drones have been playing in warfare.

The twenty-year-long American occupation in Afghanistan was used by the US and its allies to develop new war strategies and to test a broad array of new technologies. Amongst them are the unmanned armed drones, which were firstly introduced by George W. Bush during the War on Terror and became a rather vital part of the US Defence and Counterterrorism policies. Their usage was intensified by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and apparently Joe Biden is following suit.

The use of armed drones in warfare has been extensively discussed in the US over the past two decades and its normalisation path has reached a plateau. However, in Europe – namely in the European Union (EU) – the theme has been out of the public discourse. Amongst the several aspects worth discussing on drones, I am especially interested in the legitimization process the use of armed drones went through in the US – and how a similar discourse may be imported by the EU in the near future. As an EU citizen who believes in universal human rights, I find it essential to analyse and be cautious about how armed drones are framed in the public arena.

How have targeted killing operations with unmanned armed drones been legitimised by the American political power?

It has been mentioned that George W. Bush inaugurated the use of armed drones in Afghanistan. Before proceeding, one must start by clearly stating one of the manners how they can be misused (and which is the central object of the critique in this article): armed drones are often used for carrying out targeted killing operations. The goal of these operations is to tentatively assassinate suspects of certain activities (normally related to terrorism). These operations are designed to execute specific individuals, who obviously do not have any chance to defend themselves, neither in court nor via any other sort of due process. This certainly raises a number of moral and ethical questions, which will be addressed later. The first question, however, is the following: what mechanisms have been put forward and used in the American elite public discourse (namely by George W. Bush and the subsequent Presidents) to justify and legitimise the use of drones in targeted killing operations? Three ideas stand out: imminent danger, technological efficiency and collateral damage.

Firstly, the imminent danger argument was not new but gained special relevance in the post-9/11 era. At a time when surveillance and suspicion sharply increased, amplified by a sense of urgency and, to a certain extent, public demand to find and get suspects (and scapegoats) accountable for the attacks, it was relatively easy for succeeding American administrations to use the argument that, unless stopped immediately, the targets of such attacks would soon be a danger themselves.

Secondly, the technological efficiency argument posits that technological development provides an additional layer of accuracy and precision that human action simply cannot guarantee. Attached is the concept of near-certainty, which relates to the narrative that these attacks only occur when the intelligence collected about the target individual is robust enough to assume that the likelihood of the target’s culpability is close to 100%. As stressed above, the individuals targeted by these operations cannot defend themselves from the allegations against them, which is especially serious because there is always a level of uncertainty about their actual level of engagement in such terrorist activities. The targets are normally individuals that the American intelligence network suspects to have linkages to terrorist groups or to have performed terrorist activities. The problem is that they may also be completely innocent. This was notably the case (among many others) of the attack on August 29, 2021, in Kabul, which killed ten innocent civilians just a few days before the American troops left Afghanistan. Initially covered by the American authorities, a New York Times investigation brought the case to the public sphere, with General Milley eventually classifying it as a “horrible tragedy of war”. Yet another problem with the technological efficiency argument is that it is based on claims that cannot be challenged. The fact that there is very little transparency surrounding operations with armed drones makes it virtually impossible to properly dissect actual data and test this argument. Only a fog of doubts remains.

Thirdly, there is the idea of collateral damage – which is the most troublesome to me. This argument is twofold: it departs from the technological efficiency argument to state that albeit there may be civil casualties as a consequence of the operations carried out with armed drones, the success rate is at least as good as it would be with manned aerial vehicles (thus, as such, there is no extra harm in using the armed drones). Besides, the civilians who are victims of these attacks are presented as a mere collateral damage, justified by “our” (i.e. Western) potential victims that were just avoided by not letting those targets live. This argument, which is also tied to the idea of imminent danger, is not fully convincing either, as it can never be proved wrong and does not account for negative externalities. Not only do I find it problematic to discuss whose lives are worth more, I also do not even think that the argument makes that much sense “tactically”. Albeit virtually impossible to prove, one can only wonder how many “potential terrorists” have been created by the very terror campaigns carried out by the Americans and their allies and designed to kill “real terrorists”.

Is it legal? What are the consequences of a global drone warfare?

I have been trying to claim that the legitimacy of drone warfare is fragile and questionable from several points of view. Additionally, from a legal standpoint, not only is it not consensual, but most experts would probably claim that lethal attacks performed by armed drones, without due process (not only in Afghanistan but also in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries) are in fact illegal according to international law. Without being an expert in law, it does seem like a big stretch for one to argue for self-defence in order to attack small villages in countries with which the US has no open conflict nor a clearcut reason to attack (apart from the discourse-induced vague flag of War on Terror). Other countries, like Turkey, have also placed armed drones at the centre of their Defence and so-called counterterrorism strategies.

Looking at the future, or perhaps even at the present, and given the more and more transnational nature of warfare and conflict, I find it deeply worrisome to imagine this sort of technology being acquired by or offered to the wrong hands. Not that I find the US to be the right hands per se, but if it is already very difficult to get the fully picture and scale of the drone warfare campaigns performed in the past two decades by this country alone, it is even more challenging to predict the nature of the consequences of a widely and uncontrolled use of this technology – not only by other states, but also by non-state actors whose intentions, networks and technical capabilities are unknown.

What stance does the EU want to take?

The EU is currently at a crossroads when it comes to its role and positioning in the global politics arena. The US has moved its attention to the Pacific to restrain China’s growth and, in the Old Continent, the official narrative surrounding the idea of strategic autonomy, although underdeveloped, is getting traction. From a realist stance, especially in a time when the role and future of NATO is unclear, there is no strategic autonomy without strong defence capabilities. As EU citizens, we must keep our eyes wide open and supervise our leaders to ensure that their actions are in line with what the EU claims to represent and support, as a beacon of modernity and social development: to “contribute and promote to peace and security”, “solidarity and mutual respect among peoples” and to “offer freedom, security and justice”. Unrestrained engagement in drone warfare is at odds with all these ideas and therefore we must remain vigilant.

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