Citizens, Civilians, and Drone Warfare


pakistan kids.jpgChildren in Pakistan. Photo by NB77.

What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States or Canada? Generally safe and secure, we may sometimes take for granted our constitutional rights; when it comes down to it, however, the theological underpinnings upon which our two countries are founded is something we take very seriously when a given right is infringed upon, particularly by our own governments. These rights are further protected by our legislative system and its separation of the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches which serve as a checks and balances system against the power of any single branch of government. There is a process to decision making, and we expect this process to be adhered to, transparent, and above all, accountable to the citizenry.

As Americans, the Bill of Rights--especially its Amendments-- is the highest law of the land, and as Canadians, we are proud of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms which reflects our particular multicultural character. We take for granted that we do not have to lie in bed at night armed and with one eye open in fear that the Caravan of Death might come for us. We rest easy knowing if we are falsely accused of a crime, that we will have our day in court to provide evidence that proves our innocence. We are assured that even if we commit a heinous crime or consort with the most unsavory of characters who commit egregious crimes, we are entitled to go through the same criminal processes of the court system as every other Canadian or US citizen--it's our right. We will be informed of the charges against us, be given the opportunity to obtain legal council, and present our argument against the prosecution, who will have to present its evidence against us, in front of a judge and jury.

The term for this latter right is procedural due process in the US Constitution under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. It is this lack of due process for those US citizens abroad who have been targeted and killed by drone strikes that is one of the main criticisms of the Obama administration and its use of drones in the War on Terror.

Related: Drone Backgrounder


al-awlaki magharebia.jpg
Anwar al-Awlaki. Photo by Magharebia.

The Case of Anwar al-Awlaki

Anwar al-Awlaki is the New Mexican-born Muslim cleric whose rhetoric inspired the failed attempts of the "underwear" and "Times Square" bombers. He was leader of the Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate and managed to avert capture from the US military until he was finally located, monitored for three weeks, and targeted with a CIA-initiated drone strike on September 30, 2011. A month later, al-Awlaki's Colorado-born 16 year old son, Abdulrahman, was killed in another drone strike in Yemen that left several dead. Although drone strikes had been the cause of death for many of al-Qaeda's key figures, Anwar Al-Awlaki's death marked the first time the US had targeted a US citizen with the craft. In July of this year, al-Awlaki's family filed a claim to sue the US government for the two killings, which stated that "[t]hese killings rely on vague legal standards, a closed executive process, and evidence never presented to the courts."

The two deaths spurred criticism from the media, critics, and human rights groups who question the legitimacy of the administration's decision and authority. Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who brought the CIA to court September 20, 2012. They want the department to admit the existence of its drone program, and to respond to its Freedom of Information Act request the organization filed in January. Calls by the ACLU and other human rights groups have been made for the government to disclose such details as who orders the kills, explanations of the evidence, why the evidence was never presented to the court and why the government did not first seek court approval before the targeted killings occurred. Further, the ACLU wants to know "how the [US] ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killings." 

Read more about other suits the ACLU has filed regarding the administration's targeted killings.

Watch White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, Respond to These Criticisms:

Humanitarian, International, and Domestic Laws Pertaining to the Use of Drones

This is where things become tricky; can the US kill one of its citizens without trial? The answer to this is not easy. Both domestic and international law are far behind the advancements made in both the field of unmanned aerial vehicles and their use for targeted killings, and even killings in the war on terror, period. I argue that there is sufficient evidence to claim that these killings are against customary International Law (IL), even if they can be interpreted as not violating International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This custom and international opinion will eventually give way to legally condemning these type of killings--at least on paper. We know all too well that there are few, if any, enforcement mechanisms to prevent or stop a superpower who is intent on acting  on its interests despite international opinion or law. 

In regards to these above inquiries, District of Columbia judge, John Bates, while he threw out an ACLU suit to prevent the killing of al-Awlaki, concluding that the matter was of a political, and not judicial, nature remarked:   

"In [his] 83-page opinion, ...[the judge] acknowledged that the case raised "stark, and perplexing, questions" -- including whether the president could "order the assassination of a U.S. citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization."


Current US domestic laws  in place counter this position. There is an executive order banning assassinations, federal laws against murder, and citizen protections afforded in the Constitution. Not only do the administration's actions set a seemingly illegal precedent, but the government's argument is also illogical. If their decisions are based on the threat an individual poses and their associations with a terrorist organization, such as al-Qaeda, to domestic security, their actions should justify targeting those threats within US borders. Would this actually happen?  Are we going to be sitting at home only to hear an explosion down the street and discover an al-Qaeda affiliate has been killed with a drone? Not likely. We would refuse to live in such a state, and has been the case with domestic terrorists since the 1920s, they would be apprehended and go through the court system. Think Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, to name just two. This seems to both back up Judge Bates' claims that targeted killings are political and others claims that they are illegal. Furthermore, it raises questions about the necessity of drones to capture terrorists.

If the CIA had intelligence as to the whereabouts of al-Awlaki for three weeks, why did they not capture him, putting him through the legal means of the judicial system? Because they simply did not want to, and because a drone strike is easier than assembling and dispatching a unit to do the job.

Making Enemies: The Case of Pakistan

I don't subscribe to the blanketed, popular dictum that drones are simply bad because there are civilian casualties. Unfortunately, in "war" (if we're to accept that the US is in fact engaged in an asymmetrical conflict with enemy combatants), civilians get killed. In fact, due to their enhanced capabilities (insert link to backgrounder), there is much less collateral damage from drone strikes than from those weapons traditionally used in conflict. According to a study conducted by the International Committee for the Red Cross, 10 civilians were killed for every military combatant during the past century. Compare this to current figures, and it is difficult to stand by the assertion that drones are bad because they kill people. What is bad is how and why the US is using them.

The issue I have is that: one, we are not at war with Pakistan, and; two, there is a complete lack of accountability on the part of the Obama administration to use drones responsibly. They are taking advantage of the gap in customary international and humanitarian laws pertaining to their use by one, declaring this to be a "war on terror", and two, by unilaterally labelling terrorists "enemy combatants."

Drones are easier to use to target individuals and to prevent harm to our own personnel, but there must be strict regulations regarding to what specific circumstances drones may be used. The US is relying too heavily on them in non-conflict zones, and the result will be an alienated and resentful population. In a failing state such as the nuclear-armed Pakistan, this is the last thing we want to do. Sitting safe at home here in North America, we can not possibly conceive of of the fear the Pakistani population is currently living in as day by day, every hour, hundreds of drones swarm overhead awaiting their next orders to strike from who knows who, under what evidence, or under whose authority.


The documentary, Living Under Drones, explores what it is like for the people of Pakistan to live in a country that if frequently bombed by drones without warning. Visit their website for more information.

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