Diwate: Drone killings make U.S. duplicitous on human rights

Varad Diwate

“I was clear throughout this campaign and was clear throughout this transition that under my administration the United States does not torture. We will abide by the Geneva Conventions. We will uphold our highest ideals.”

These were the words of President Barack Obama before beginning his term in 2009. In his second term, not only did he sign the controversial National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), he also found himself in trouble over a memo that authorizes extrajudicial killings of suspected U.S. citizens under vague conditions. So, despite promises for a transparent administration, Obama still has an abysmal record on civil liberties.

Some wonder: What is worse? Killing suspected terrorists using unmanned killing machines or torturing suspects with techniques condemned by human rights organizations? A piece from The New Yorker finds some parallel points between the two: “Both use slippery legal language to parse dark government programs. Both have been deliberately hidden from public and even congressional oversight. And both involve the blurring of C.I.A. and military operations.”

Just as the inhumane waterboarding technique sounds like a water park ride, the Obama administration prefers to use innocuous terms like “unmanned aerial vehicles” for deadly drones and “signature strikes” for killing suspected but unidentified targets. Another euphemism is “double-tap;” i.e., firing on a single area twice, which ensures that the target is indeed killed and rules out any possibility of rescue efforts.

As Obama wound up the ground war in Iraq and is working on an exit strategy in Afghanistan, “silent killer” drones are gaining ground. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates the drone strikes under Obama in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to be more than 310 compared to 52 under President George W. Bush. The total casualties are difficult to assess, but compiled media and intelligence reports by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism peg the number between 2,640 and 3,474, including at least 450 civilians.

There are some who advocate drone warfare for the drone’s precision capabilities. It is said to be the most effective way to combat terrorists with minimal risk to soldiers and civilians. But the precision seems to be lost when one sees the civilian deaths due to drones. According to CNN, “Living Under Drones,” a study by Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law, calls for a reevaluation of the practice, saying the number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low  about 2 percent.

So do these civilian deaths justify deaths of low-level or even suspected individuals? Proponents of the drone program support killing innocent civilians abroad in lieu of nailing down a suspected terrorist. This is possibly because the computer-screen war is easier to deal with than seeing real blood. For a moment, think: What would be the reaction if deaths of American citizens by drones were dismissed as collateral damage?

The drone program has entered even murkier areas when Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida affiliate and a U.S. citizen, was killed on foreign soil by a drone strike. There are legal tangles in this case, as it involves the government killing a U.S. citizen on foreign soil. The shocking part of this story is that Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was also killed by a Hellfire missile two weeks after his father was targeted. And the justification for this killing was ludicrous to say the least. During the last election campaign, Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and senior adviser for Obama, said, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the wellbeing of their children.”

I wonder how the supposed U.S. initiative on peace and against terrorism is seen by civilians who see their close ones being “droned.” “Living Under Drones” notes, “Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”

While the military acknowledges the drone program, the C.I.A. operates it covertly. A request by Scott Shane, national security reporter for The New York Times, asked for a memorandum on targeted drone killings. The response by the Department of Justice said “The very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such documents is itself classified.”

Given the strategic advantage of drones and irreversible nature of arms technology, it is unlikely that drones will be put away solely for ethical or even legal reasons. But the secrecy on this issue does not help, either. Just as in many matters, transparency and clear boundaries on action can make a difference. Otherwise, the U.S. statements on human rights at the international level just seem to be duplicitous.


Varad Diwate is a freshman in journalism from Nashik, India.