Culpable US drone strikes?


Syed Qamar A Rizvi

REPORTED from reliable quarters, Trump’s administration is reconsidering its drone policy vis-à-vis Pakistan by broadening a drone campaign to penetrate deeper into Pakistan to target Haqqani fighters and other militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan. By any fair yardstick, the US controversial drone strikes—operated out of war-zones—substantially challenge the fundamentals of international law. The US drone policy needs a thorough re-examination.
President Donald Trump has granted the CIA authority to conduct lethal drone strikes once again, according to a news report, rolling back the limits his predecessor Barack Obama imposed on the spy agency’s paramilitary operations. In one week earlier this month, the Trump administration conducted about 40 strikes in Yemen, including 25 on a single day. Barack Obama was much criticised for his dramatic escalation of drone strikes in non-battlefield settings such as Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
Trump is already surpassing Obama’s record. According to Micah Zenko, an expert on drones at the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama conducted one strike every 5.4 days; Trump has thus far averaged one strike or raid every 1.25 days. The June 12 drone strike into the Pakistan led Pak-Afghan territory resurrects justified apprehensions in the Pakistan’s security establishment, as well as the experts in Foreign Office. The Islamabad reaction is nonetheless justified and natural.
The US drone programme is focused on targeted killings by drones in Pakistan’s tribal lands, Yemen and Somalia – states where there is no declared war or United Nations-endorsed conflict. Hence, the international law experts argue the killings by these drone strikes are unjustified and may be referred as war crimes. The ICJ advisory opinion on drone strikes holds that without a state consent, these strikes do violate the very principle of state sovereignty.
An international law professor Robert Chesney wrote: ‘’it is unlikely that moving drones to the CIA will markedly increase secrecy of the drone programme’’. True, the agency operates under ‘covert’ action legal authority, which bars administration officials from publicly admitting to drone strikes. By failing to explain when force will be used ‘outside of armed conflict’, there appears an opaqueness in this drone programme. Since the relevant treaty law governing non-international armed conflict does not clearly explain the geographical scope of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), and also that of International Human Rights law (IHRL), there appear a variety of disagreements and various views . This subject has become a gray area in today’s international relations. Different States and academics have adopted a range of views, and some of the broader relevant legal issues are currently being litigated before the American and English courts.
As for Pakistan, protecting its territorial integrity seems the first and foremost national imperative. Under this national obligation, it would not be an out box probability that it might shoot down a US’s drone striking into the Pakistani territory. To test Islamabad’s patience via these strikes which are ultra vires, cannot be a good omen. Should not the recent shooting down— of the Iranian drone by Pakistan Air Force since the drone violated Pakistan’s sovereignty in Balochistan— be sending a clear message to the international community that as for Pakistan national security interests, Islamabad can make no compromise? Therefore, before inviting such a policy clash with Pakistan’s security interests, Washington need must think time and time again. At stakes are US’s policy interests in South Asia, while annoying Pakistan can no more be a wise initiative at the part of the Trump administration.
The Trump administration must not overlook this scenario while orchestrating its drone strategy with regard to Pakistan. While weighing in on US-Pak ties we may preclude, Trump’s administration any such policy— to extend its drone strikes into the Pakistan-led territory— would be tantamount to waging an open conflict vis-à-vis international law that endorses Pakistan’s right to protect is national sovereignty against the US- led drone strikes that violate Pakistan’s territorial integrity. On reports that US may step up drone strikes, the Foreign Office spokesperson made it clear that Pakistan’s position on US drone strikes was very clear. He said these attacks were counterproductive and amounted to violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Trump’s administration revisionist approach— to increase the speed of strikes may reverse the Obama administration’s caution observing policy towards Pakistan that the former US president observed in the last days of his tenure and set a dangerous precedent for international law regime. In matters concerning justice and international law there can be no distinction between powerful states and weak states, for the general principles which determine the conduct of international law there must be equal state responsibility and adherence to international rules.
The Trump administration has recently formalized a deal of 22 spy drones sale to New Delhi. If the US desires to be able to clearly distinguish between its actions with drones and those of others that it might see as illegitimate, it must reorient its drone policy. Obviously, US has not been transparent about its own use of drones, however, perpetuating the perception that US drone strikes outside hot battlefields are illegitimate or, even worse, illegal. The United States needs to actively work to promulgate the norm that, like all weapons, drones must be used in accordance with applicable international law. Washington’s actions must reinforce that message, and first step in doing so is greater transparency regarding US use of drones.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.

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