Congress must rein in military drones

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Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan (LUD) is the result of a nine month investigation by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the International Human Rights and the Global Justice Clinic of the New York University School of Law. The authors call for greater government transparency, compensation for civilians harmed by the attacks and reevaluation of US drone policy. The issues they raise warrant urgent attention by both Congress and the Executive Branch.

Separate bills now being advanced by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Ted Poe (R-Tex.) seek to regulate the domestic use of drones. They are essentially privacy bills that would establish safeguards on the surveillance of U.S. citizens and residents. Meanwhile, President Obama signed an FAA bill in February that gave a go-ahead to integrate drones into the country’s airspace by 2015.

The CIA’s use of U.S. drones in military actions is unregulated and only recently acknowledged by the administration. As the LUD report highlights, there is an almost total lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and other aspects of the program. There has been notable absence of public debate on drone strikes; the president’s recent interview statements amount to no more than “trust me.”  While the administration announces the deaths of high-level militants with fanfare, the LUD concludes that the number of such targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is only “about 2%.”

At the same time, the report says that US drones have killed or injured innocent civilians in numbers that defy administration claims that such casualties are “exceedingly rare.” The LUD report cites figures published by the independent, London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism showing that drone strikes from June 2004 to September, 2012 killed more than 2,500 Pakistanis, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians, including 176 children. The report condemns the CIA practice of “double-tap,” the second striking of a target to hit or discourage first responders.  

Beyond the immediate death and destruction of the drone attacks is the constant fear that 24/7 drone surveillance creates among the villagers in North Waziristan. As one of the residents told report interviewers “Strikes are always on our minds.  That is why people don’t go out to schools, because they are afraid that they may be the next ones to be hit.”  According to the report, “Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning.  Their presence terrorizes men, women and children, giving rise to anxieties among civilian communities.” Not surprisingly,  the report later concludes that drone attacks help terrorist groups attract new recruits.

The LUD questions the legality of the drone strikes. Unless the Pakistani government has  consented (doubtful based on current evidence), they clearly violate national sovereignty. Nor would a claim of self-defense satisfy international law standards under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which requires “armed attack” for such justification. If the actions qualify as “armed conflict,” they would run afoul several provisions of the international humanitarian law.  Absent “armed conflict,” the limits of international human rights law would apply.  US drone policy may also violate US domestic law, which prohibits assassination and limits executive power.

Living Under Drones is a wake up call for Congress and the president. The LUD report says that US drone policy needs serious “rethinking.” Americans alarmed by the targeted killings (akin to actions of a mob hit squad) and the collateral deaths, injuries and property losses suffered by innocent civilians, would go further. Congress should prohibit CIA deployment of drones in civilian areas and fix standards for drone use that comply with both international and domestic law.  


Hager is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization, Rome, Italy.