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Drones and Human Rights

by Middle East Research and Information Project, May 1, 2012

It was also a disturbing symptom of the general acceptance -- indeed mainstreaming -- of drones as a cost-effective, risk- and responsibility-free, omnipresent technology of surveillance and violence. A technology that has facilitated new regimes of remote-control atrocity: Israel’s maintenance of the Gaza Strip as an open-air animal pen for 1.6 million human beings, and the unchecked expansion of the US-led global civil war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. A technology that enables the US to swap the unseemly jingoism of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier for the equally disturbing insouciance of Barack Obama cracking Predator jokes at a black-tie dinner. As a human rights worker, I have seen enough shrapnel wounds and houses bombed out from both kinds of weapons to assure you that the differences do not amount to very much in the end for those whose lives have been destroyed.

Letters re: Humanitarian Drones

by The Editors | published May 1, 2012 - 11:06am

Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Darryl Li square off re: “Some Bad Ideas Can’t Be Shot Down,” Li’s post about Sniderman’s January 30 op-ed, “Drones for Human Rights,” in the New York Times:

Darryl,

I’m glad you took the time to criticize my op-ed in your post, because I’m more than glad to have it torn down publicly and brutally if it’s a bad idea.

But I do not think you were fair, on many accounts.

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about: human rights groups using flying cameras to complement the existing practice of human rights monitoring. In some situations drones could assist this work, and in some situations this might do some good. This is my thesis.

Can this make sense without the backdrop/endorsement of state power? My proposal wanted nothing to do with a state’s military. That Madeleine Albright used satellite imagery of mass graves does not discredit the independent practice of human rights monitoring, which can be valuable.

As an aside, perhaps multilateral bodies like the UN or the Arab League will make use of drones to monitor violence. I’m not sure that would be a bad thing, and in some ways it is less problematic than a non-state NGO doing it.

A drone in Syria would probably be shot down. In other situations, if a non-state actor is doing the killing (the LRA perhaps, or a lightly armed militia), this will be less of a certainty. It’s true that a drone monitoring human rights abuses in Hebron wouldn’t last five minutes. But that a drone can get shot down is not an argument against the role it may play while it flies.

You really get on a roll when you let me know what my real motive is: American-endorsed humanitarian intervention. What a swell fantasy. I didn’t realize that a commitment to documenting atrocities necessitates a unipolar military agenda.

I am not calling for armed intervention in Syria. Human rights discourse and reporting can certainly be problematic, but no, it doesn’t have to be the handmaiden of Western imperialism.

You say it’s difficult to see “how any version of their proposal would be practical” without a commitment to armed military intervention. What a farce. When Anthony Shadid breaks Syrian law to report on the uprising, I presume you’re OK with that. How about when Human Rights Watch sneaks in observers to gather testimony on the civil war in southeastern Burma? I’m not proposing that drones replace these reporting practices -- it cannot -- but, yes, in extreme cases they might assist.

Most importantly, there’s an enormous red line separating a drone carrying a camera and a drone carrying a missile. These are completely different things and you were lazily glib to suggest otherwise. And, yes, it’s possible to document atrocities without importing a particular interventionist agenda. I understand human rights reporting is a political act, and I understand how a language of human rights can be coopted. But human rights reporting does not prejudge the appropriate strategy to address problems, and at its best the information and understanding it gleans can help craft appropriate solutions.

Am I so “vapid” to think that drones will henceforth help us understand violence from a thousand feet in the air? Give me a break. The real question is whether better documenting atrocity as it occurs can play any positive role in reducing that violence. I don’t know the answer to that question, and it will always depend on the specific circumstances. But I think we should be willing to test that proposition.

Andrew

Andrew,

My post analyzed why ideas such as your proposed use of “drones for human rights” have the appeal that they do with certain audiences despite their obvious problems. Your response is focused on still defending the merits of your idea. Because we seem to be arguing on different wavelengths, I am skeptical that dialogue would be useful. But perhaps others may find an exchange edifying.

I understand your basic argument to be that, in some situations, use of a drone by a human rights organization might be helpful. Political context isn’t the starting point here; it’s just an interchangeable backdrop. This sets the bar so low so as to make the argument virtually unfalsifiable. You concede that drones against powerful states are a non-starter. But that’s OK, we can still do some good somewhere, right? You concede that maybe drones in Syria also make little sense. So then you shift to talking about drones in central Africa against the LRA (which would of course be completely unlike the drones the US military is likely already using there). But wouldn’t that require the consent of Uganda or other abusive governments that might seek to coopt the drones for their own purposes? OK, how about case X, Y or Z? We could play this game forever because, in your framework, there is always some hypothetical situation in which drones would be feasible and more useful than not. This Gumby-like plasticity allows you to concede almost any critique and to appropriate any headline -- even Anthony Shadid’s death -- in service of your proposal.

This detachment from context is also what I imagine upset some of the critics of your op-ed: Regardless of what you may think or feel, real conflicts in which real people suffer and die have basically become just so many test cases for your pet idea. Your arguments are that of an evangelizing hammer salesman in search of the right kind of nail with the right kind of board in the right kind of weather for the right kinds of carpenters, wandering around the ruins of homes laid waste in a hurricane, some of whose owners have, incidentally, had their heads bashed in by...hammers. The audience to which this is going to be most compelling isn’t composed of people in these conflicts; it’s those who share your fantasy of a UN viewing session in which dramatic footage prompts dramatic action, a logic vividly illustrated by the domino sequence of the Kony2012 video (21:30-22:30).

You speak of drones as if they are nothing more than flying cameras, just another tool for human rights researchers and journalists. This ignores a glaring difference. When reporters or human rights researchers take the extraordinary step of acting contrary to a sovereign government’s laws, the personal risks they incur provide some degree of legitimizing constraint on their actions. What you are proposing is completely different: the use of a technology whose very appeal lies in its lack of risk and therefore is not similarly constrained. Indeed, insofar as you fantasize about their use in areas “without [a] strong state” in Africa, what you are talking about is NGOs effectively assuming some kind of quasi-public function, further exacerbating their already glaring lack of accountability. Now it may be that one day drones will lose this association with government power and become ubiquitous personalized technologies, like mobile phones. If that occurs, social movements embedded in contexts of struggle will find ways to adapt such technologies on their own -- as was the case with Facebook and Twitter. There wouldn’t even be a need for New York Times op-eds, TEDTalks or anything else -- people would just do it. In any event, at that stage we will all be debating the abuse of drones by private actors, a massive area of problems that your argument simply skips past.

For the foregoing reasons, your op-ed cannot be taken seriously on its face, so understanding its context becomes even more necessary. In this case, the context is one in which the US and allied governments want to intervene in Syria but know that an air war is not feasible. Therefore, the editors and readers of the New York Times are going to be interested in similar options that allow the exercise of influence on the cheap. I would venture to guess that is why your op-ed was published at that time and in that place, and not simply because of the inherent value of the proposal.

Yet you seem to be shocked that readers associate your op-ed with state or militarized use of drones. Why? You explicitly cite the NATO war on Libya as a precedent justifying your proposal. You have reportedly attempted to hire armed mercenaries for use in Darfur. And your argument does not provide any clues as to what its own limits might be. You claim there is an “enormous red line” separating military use of drones from your proposal. What, exactly, is that red line composed of other than your stated good intentions? From what I can see, not very much. When someone in the policy world took the entirely predictable step of locating the middle ground between your proposal and current practice bysuggesting drone use by the UN, you had no clear position on the matter even weeks later. If you think it’s so unfair for readers to associate your op-ed with militarism perhaps you should start by opposing militarism.

When you wrote of a “precedent worth setting,” this was not just a step toward militarization in Syria. It was also a disturbing symptom of the general acceptance -- indeed mainstreaming -- of drones as a cost-effective, risk- and responsibility-free, omnipresent technology of surveillance and violence. A technology that has facilitated new regimes of remote-control atrocity: Israel’s maintenance of the Gaza Strip as an open-air animal pen for 1.6 million human beings, and the unchecked expansion of the US-led global civil war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. A technology that enables the US to swap the unseemly jingoism of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier for the equally disturbing insouciance of Barack Obama cracking Predator jokes at a black-tie dinner. As a human rights worker, I have seen enough shrapnel wounds and houses bombed out from both kinds of weapons to assure you that the differences do not amount to very much in the end for those whose lives have been destroyed. I do not think it reasonable for you to expect readers to forget this context and treat your op-ed -- which takes this mode of warfare as given and merely seeks to share the joy of droning with others -- as nothing more than an innocent “thought piece.”

Darryl

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Politicizing the drone debate

By David Ignatius, The Washington Post, May 2, 2012

During this week of retrospectives on the killing of Osama bin Laden, one of the most interesting public comments was White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan’s speech formally affirming that “the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”

Well, everyone knew that, right? Yes, the drone program was indeed very well known — perhaps the world’s worst-kept secret. But until Brennan’s speech Monday, it was not officially acknowledged. He was, in effect, outing what had been a “covert action” program conducted by the CIA. Not only that, he also explained some of the rules guiding the White House when it decides to kill adversaries under this program.

Brennan made some laudable points in his speech but also some puzzling ones, as I’ll discuss later. But what troubles me about the speech is that it further politicizes this realm of national-security policy — making it easier for President Obama’s team, and the president himself, to talk publicly about the drone war in the coming campaign.

Since the program is no longer secret, Obama’s surrogates can now brag about it all they want. Not only did Obama authorize the raid that killed bin Laden, his campaign advisers can say. Thanks to Obama’s aggressive drone attacks, “the core al-Qaeda leadership is a shadow of its former self,” to quote Brennan’s words.

Brennan described the rationale: “I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.” And certainly, there’s a good public-policy argument for greater disclosure. With many other analysts, I’ve argued for a broader debate about drones to establish sound rules for their use.

“There needs to be a public vocabulary for this subject,” contends Benjamin Wittes, one of the founders of the Lawfare blog that examines national-security legal issues. “Whether they’ve got all the details of the framework right is a very hard question, but I’m admiring of the basic instinct to describe it in public.”

Open debate about drone policy is valuable. I just wish Brennan hadn’t expanded it at the very time Obama’s political advisers are preparing to run partly on his tough-minded role as “covert commander in chief,” as I described him in a column last year. As these politicos plan the campaign, they see Obama’s victory in the “mano-a-mano” duel with bin Laden (who wanted, equally, to kill the president) as one of his best issues.

Looking at the details of Brennan’s speech, I found several aspects confusing — and indicative of why more public debate is needed.

One knotty issue is the legal standard for these targeted killings (or, to use a less euphemistic term, assassinations).

Brennan says the president has general constitutional authority as commander in chief to act against “any imminent threat of attack,” and a specific congressional mandate to strike any member of al-Qaeda, under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. But with al-Qaeda members, Brennan goes on, “when considering lethal force we ask whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests.” Except when the al-Qaeda member is a U.S. citizen; then the standard narrows to “whether the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack.”

Maybe administration lawyers understand the legal and practical differences between “imminent” and “significant,” but I don’t.

Then there’s the question of international legal authority. Brennan argues that drone attacks for self-defense are legal under international law, “at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.” Now where, I wonder, does Pakistan fit under that standard? It used to “consent” secretly, but is it now “unwilling” or “unable,” or some hybrid?

The bedrock problem, as Brennan rightly notes, is that America is setting standards for a world in which dozens of countries will soon have drones. What if the Chinese deployed drones to protect their workers in southern Sudan against rebels who have killed them in past attacks? What if Iran used them against Kurdish separatists they regard as terrorists? What if Russia used them over Chechnya? What position would the United States take, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if it opposed drone attacks by other nations that face “imminent” or “significant” threats?

Ducking these questions was easier when drone attacks were part of a covert CIA program whose existence was officially denied by the U.S. government. But that status ended Monday, and we’re just beginning the process of finding good answers.

davidignatius@washpost.com