Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Drone aircraft, civilian casualties, and the law

with 9 comments


A Reaper UAV being prepared for a test flight, Creech AFB, Nevada. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Wall Street Journal editorializes today about the use of UAVs in the war on terror. It makes the case that despite concerns, their use is legal under international law, and that drones minimize civilian casualties. Both of these points may be true, but in typical fashion the Journal eludes one of the key questions and contradicts itself on the other.

This is a topic I know a little about: In 2008 I edited a feature article for a national magazine on the team of Air Force personnel that operates the drones from trailers outside of Las Vegas (check back next week for the link), and last month I interviewed the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, who has been the most outspoken official about the question of the legality of the US program.

As is too often the case, the Journal in its editorial is guilty of dishonesty by omission. It implies that the only issue of international law at hand is that the law

…allows states to kill their enemies in a conflict, and to operate in “neutral” countries if the hosts allow bombing on their territory. Pakistan and Yemen have both given their permission to the U.S., albeit quietly.

But that is not Alston’s beef, as he told me when I spoke to him in his office on December 7 and 10, and as he told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” in October pursuant to a report to the General Assembly he issued  (good luck finding it on the UN’s Kafka-esque website). Rather, it’s a matter of taking proper measures to prevent civilian casualties.

The Journal blithely claims that the drones are more accurate than alternatives, and superior at targeting combatants out of uniform. I’ve seen screen shots of what the drone operators see, and the level of detail that can be ascertained from 12,000 miles away is flabbergasting.

Yet, the Journal states,

Civilian casualties are hard to verify, since independent observers often can’t access the bombing sites.

Wait a minute: The drones can tell whether a targeted individual is the right guy or not before they shoot him, but they can’t go back afterward and see if there are any dead children lying around? This is ludicrous!

It’s also the main point Alston raises regarding the drones’ legality, but you wouldn’t know that from the Journal‘s editorial. According to international law, parties to armed conflict must take reasonable steps to prevent civilian casualties. Whether the US is doing so in this case, we have no idea. Alston:

We have no real information on this program…There’s no accountability for it. There’s no indication of the rules that they use…It’s possible to justify a particular killing, but the CIA has never tried…They have simply issued a general assurance…Well, if Israel or some other country that we’re scrutinizing says that, we say, “Sorry, guys, it’s not enough. We need to get the details.”

Alston continues:

I’m calling for the government to make clear the details of the program; the legal basis, under US law, on which they are relying; the rules that they have put in place which govern the CIA actions, assuming there are rules; and what sort of accountability mechanisms they have.

The drones are an incredible tool of war, a disruptive technology on the order of the iPod. They are no doubt effective, and they save American lives. All good. They may also save civilian lives. Also good. How hard can it be to verify this point? And wouldn’t it behoove the battle for hearts and minds to do so?

Does anyone know if there would be any intelligence risks at stake, or tactical disadvantages, to do another fly-over and check for collateral damage? I haven’t heard either, but I’d be interested to learn one way or the other.

Follow me on Twitter.


9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] rest is here: Drone aircraft, civilian casualties, and the law – Paul Tullis … Aviation […]

  2. I agree that the rules of engagement for drones is not totally clear, but the American legal basis has been outlined. The post-9/11 AUMF was clearly intended to allow tools like the drones to be used to kill terrorists. Given the near-unanimous assent to the AUMF by Congress, I think before any lawmakers seek to criticize the use of the drones, or put limits on their use, they first need to revise the AUMF – it’s been 8=plus years now, and the war against al-Qaida has changed, so the legislation that is the basis of that war needs to be altered

    Michael Roston

    January 10, 2010 at 10:17 am

    • Hi Michael! I don’t question the legality of the use of drones under US law; the question is whether the US is adhering to international law, which, despite the claims of both the Bush and Obama administrations, clearly applies here. Under int’l law reasonable measures must be undertaken to prevent civilian casualties. The progress of the mil-ind complex in this area since Vietnam has been commendable, and at no little expense (compare drone strikes to the firebombing of Dresden, e.g., which, though an industrial center for Hitler’s war machine was also a home to tens of thousands of civilians who lost their lives to US policy). But what Alston is saying is we have no idea what measures are being taken, because the program operates under so much secrecy. Revising the AUMF, I think, is unlikely to change this significantly since so many drone operations are carried out by the CIA.

      Paul Tullis

      January 10, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  3. We have two choices:

    1. Pound the terrorists into submission

    2. or surrender

    There is absolutely no way to reason with these muslim fanatics….who hunt down private citizens who draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book…

    Because they are not all marching in uniform in the goose step formation…we can’t see the organized hate which is out there


    January 10, 2010 at 11:24 am

    • What’s ironic is… they are probably saying the exact same thing about us…

      Including the hate part.. which is completely ironic since all you do is type out hate on this site.


      January 10, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    • Mr. Levinson, Your position, while extreme and unsubstantiated by history, is not incompatible with compliance to international law. As my original post tried to make clear, there is no choice that needs to be made between success on the battlefield and transparently taking steps to minimize civilian casualties. The wonder of the drones is that they afford both; the mystery is why, given the need to cultivate sympathizers not enemies in countries touched by the war on terror, the US does not.

      Paul Tullis

      January 10, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  4. Mr. Tullis,

    The very simple solution to the questions asked in your piece is turn it around. Suppose anti-Castro terrorists in Florida were actively planning attacks on Cuba and further suppose the Cuban government sent drones over Florida to kill them, what would the attitude of the US government be to this?

    Legality aside, you making the same mistake that some many commentators are making, killing individuals will not solve the problem of al Qaeda. The US government has been killing them for years, rather successfully, with drones and with more conventional tools. Al Qaeda is now active in Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia when it was not before, while holding on its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    The problem is that many people in South West Asia feel that they are being oppressed and exploited by “The West” in general and the US in particular. Al Qaeda has been able to convince more than a few of the people there that they can do something about that. Drones cannot change those facts. The US could kill every single al Qaeda operative tomorrow and within a few years some new group will arise to take their place.


    January 11, 2010 at 1:53 am

    • Thanks for your comment David. My feeling is there is no legality aside–for precisely the reasons you elucidate. Minimizing civilian casualties will improve the US image. Don’t make the mistake of believing al Qaeda & Taliban are loved in these places; compared to a corrupt govt that can’t provide services they may have some advantages, but their brutality is loathed by most, from what I gather. A combination of excising those on the battlefield and improving the station of those whom they exploit is the winning strategy, to my way of thinking, and this is best carried out (in part) by adherence to the laws of war.

      Paul Tullis

      January 11, 2010 at 4:11 pm

  5. The WSJ op-ed was amazing and seemed to center on (as you point out) the argument of International Law.

    To add to this… what about the part (in the International Law) where a neutral country is a sovereign nation and has to agree to the bombing.

    When did Zardari do that?

    I mean, I remember our CIA and DoD first denying that drones existed in Pak. Followed by multiple news reports (not on cable) that Zardari and other officials condemned any drones in the country and especially the attacks. I also remember Zardari saying – Give me the drones and we will do it ourselves.

    And recently we see an OK for “un-armed” drones approved by DoD to be shipped to Pak (upsetting India… just a little).

    Along the way we have numerous visits by Holbrooke and Clinton offering economic extortion… I mean US aid to help foster a more effective Government.

    Guess I missed the part where the (again) Sovereign Nation of Pakistan gave the OK to attack their civilians with drones. Or did I?


    January 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: