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Drone warfare is effective, but is it ethical?

Posted: 02/6/2013 9:51 AM | Comments: 0


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EDMONTON — Among the most fascinating debates to emerge throughout the so-called War on Terror has been the ongoing concern regarding the use of unmanned drones by the U.S.

These drones have been used in various theatres of war, and their use has been heavily defended by the Obama administration. When a U.S. Justice Department memo was leaked regarding the possible use of drones to kill American citizens abroad participating in terrorist activities against the U.S., the Obama administration argued that the American government would continue to rely on drones because "they are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."

Throughout the last decade, the use of drone technology has come under heavy scrutiny due to the lack of oversight of drone strikes, particularly under the CIA umbrella, the collateral damage and civilian casualties sometimes incurred by their use, and more because of the serious ethical questions that stem from unmanned drone technology being used to kill targets without due process or oversight from the U.S. Congress or international institutions.

In many ways, the U.S. executive branch has been defining and eliminating targets at will.

This lack of process and the growing fears of the president’s unilateral ability to deploy and use drones have now led many in Congress, Democrats included, to explore the possibility to placing limits on the use of drones and possible limits on presidential authority over drones in the future.

Presently, the U.S. military and CIA have the authority to use unmanned drones to target and eliminated targets classified as terrorists or terror suspects. This authority, falling under the executive branch of the U.S. government, has seen the use of drones in many areas of the world without any disclosure of how many suspects have been targeted and exactly where drones have or have not been used.

The question facing American lawmakers is two-fold.

The first concern focuses on the authority of the president to unilaterally approve the use of drones and the second, far broader concern, is whether drone technology is truly legal, ethical and wise, as White House spokesman James Carney stated.

One of the key aspects of calculating the use of force since the end of the Second World War has been the perceived value and sanctity of human life, especially to civilians and non-combatants. Conventions, laws, covenants and charters have all been written since 1945 in efforts not to repeat the large-scale loss of life seen in the war, which included by both the Allied and Axis powers the arbitrary targeting of civilians.

As norms and legal frameworks regarding warfare and violence evolved, technology was developed to ensure that states, especially powerful states, were able to wage war if necessary, but in ways that would greatly reduce the human and civilian costs.

Nuclear arms are a clear exception to this rule, but the fact that these weapons have only ever been used twice in human history is a clear indication that no state or state leader has been willing to inflict such massive devastation in the name of war.

Cruise missiles, covert assassinations, and precision bombing are only a few methods that states have developed to minimize collateral damage when employing the tools of war.

Drone technology is a recent development in this long line of tools, but drones challenge some of the fundamental assumptions regarding the use of violence, including most importantly how convenient it is for a state to target others without their own soldiers or agents being at risk. The cost-benefit analysis of war now alters based on the fact that human costs for one state are now totally removed from the equation.

Under post-9/11 laws, the legal case for drone strikes can be made, as can the wisdom of their use when American military personnel will not be put in harm’s way. The biggest question that Congress, American citizens, and all observers must focus on is the ethical dilemma posed by developments in drone technology. History has shown that our current conceptions of unmanned drones will improve and will not be exclusive to one or a few states for very long. It is highly doubtful that American leaders would be as comfortable with a Chinese, Iranian or North Korean drone.


Robert W. Murray is an adjunct professor of political science in the department of political science at the University of Alberta.


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