Posted on July 30, 2013

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from a Human Security Perspective

by Payam Akram, Oliver Clarke, Aditi Gupta and Ilya Jones


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have steadily become established as key US weapons both in the military effort in Afghanistan and in a wider policy of seeking to hunt and kill or capture terrorists located within the territories of states with which the US is not at war. In Pakistan, Libya and Yemen, for example, US drones are used to target al-Qaeda militants and their affiliates, such as Al-Shahbaab and the Haqqani Network. In his National Security speech of May 2013, President Obama justified the use of drone strikes as “the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.” This argument is revealing since, while reflecting the dominant mentality behind the US drones policy, it is blatantly erroneous.

Drone technology has been used for decades for strategic, operational and tactical purposes in warfare. However, recent developments in the technology – longer flight times, more sophisticated surveillance equipment, and the addition of precision missiles to certain classes of UAVs – in the context of a worldwide US pursuit of terrorists since 9/11, has created new uses and new dilemmas. Drones blur and potentially erase firm boundaries between spaces at peace and spaces at war, and strain international legal principles based upon such distinctions. The recent utilisation of drones for ‘kill orders’ by the US has sparked increasing concerns regarding human security worldwide.

While the use of drones has grown exponentially outside of war zones, drone strikes have been concentrated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, including FATA and Waziristan. It is here, too, that compelling evidence undermines the notion that drones minimise the loss of innocent life. Within this region, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented 1,112-1,493 injured and 2,514-3,584 people killed in strikes between 2004-2013. Of those killed, between 410-928 were civilians and between 164-195 were children. Furthermore, according to recent research by Stanford and NYU, drone strikes have inflicted considerable psychological trauma on residents of affected regions and have effectively deterred relief workers from serving in these areas.

Predictably, when held up to the standards of international law, drone strikes fail on several accounts. Firstly, they violate the already-strained concept of imminence. Those who are targeted by UAVs are not an immediate threat to the U.S. and most likely will never pose direct danger of any kind. Pursuing a policy of pre-emptive strikes deprives victims of due process and the rule of law, and prioritising “kill” over “capture” only further insulates the American public from the actions of the Obama administration. Secondly, military targets must have high military value. While data is limited, it is estimated that the great majority of casualties have been low-level recruits rather than terrorist ringleaders, thus fuelling grievances and recruitment into groups like al-Qaeda. Thirdly, the International Humanitarian Law principle of distinction requires that only legitimate combatants be targeted. Simply looking at civilian casualty figures, it is clear that drones have killed scores of innocents, especially through practices such as “signature strikes” and the loose interpretation of “enemy combatants”. Fourthly, the principle of proportionality calls for a response that does not exceed military necessity and does not cause undue suffering. Drone strikes are far from “proportional”, a fact evidenced by cruel tactics such as double-tapping and civilian deaths. Finally, the core principle of humanity is carelessly cast aside – compounding the physical harm is the psychological terror inflicted by the constant threat of drone strikes.

The use of UAVs flagrantly violates several principles of IHL, and stretches others to their breaking point. From a human security perspective then, the reassertion of IHL is a powerful tool to curb the use of drones. The international community can continue to exert pressure on the United States, as the European Parliament and the United Nations have already done by initiating investigations. This promising first step must be followed up with further investigations and demands for greater transparency, possibly through the creation of a drone “watchdog” committee. In addition to advocacy, this body will monitor and report on drone activity and violations of international law.

However, given the War on Terror and the U.S. refusal to acknowledge concerns regarding international law, such criticism may fall on deaf ears. In this context a more useful approach could be to appeal to domestic U.S. law. The courts could address constitutionality, but would likely avoid ruling on political issues seen as being executive dominion. At present, Congress has very limited oversight over drone strikes and accountability mechanisms remain highly limited and secretive. Yet Congress is probably the best check on executive power. However, it is unlikely to reassert itself until the American public demands it. Media and civil society within the Western world, therefore, could help create a demand for action from below by opening up drones policy to scrutiny and especially by critically scrutinising some of the core claims made about drones- particularly the claim that they minimise civilian casualties.

Similarly, popular pressure from the US public would be generated if the American public understood the visceral anger and resentment that current US policy is generating. That policy, a blend of drone strikes and efforts at strengthening preferred local power brokers further undermines any safe political space where civil society can debate credible alternatives. Communities currently rely on traditional institutions such as jirgas and shuras, but their use is being undermined by drone strikes. By deliberately targeting group gatherings and subjecting them to brutal ‘double’ strikes (in which a second missile is launched to strike those rushing to help those hit in the first attack) a culture of fear and unwillingness to engage with others has been created: a prime cause of extremist recruitment. Meanwhile, wider resentment over drone strikes lends legitimacy, credibility and recruits to extremist causes. Human security, conversely, requires reopening spaces for broad-based civil society discussion and dialogue.

Therefore, robust diplomatic engagement at all levels is vital to foster reconciliation and dialogue, coupled with efforts to curb the use of drones at an international level and to address the legitimate grievances that draw people to extremist causes. In addition, there is a need to address the absence of any judicial mechanism to resolve conflicts locally, or to hold the international community accountable. Ultimately, a human security approach to drone usage (apart from abolishing them altogether) consists of greater emphasis on securing civil society space and taking community concerns seriously.

Payam Akram, Oliver Clarke, Aditi Gupta and Ilya Jones are Graduate students taking the Human Security course at the Department of International Development, LSE. This commentary is based on their group project for the course.