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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


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United States drone strikes: legal mechanisms and controversy

By Sarah Ben-Moussa

As the nature of warfare and military endeavors continues to evolve, one of the most controversial topics continues to be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS), more commonly known as drones. They have been mostly used in situations where manned flight is considered to be too dangerous or difficult, in an effort to prevent intrusive military operations. Their use began under the administration of President George W. Bush, and has since increased under President Barack Obama’s administration, becoming a favored military strategy in recent years, despite international and domestic criticism. There is has been a growing and widespread concern for civilian casualties as a result of the use of drones, especially after January of this year, when President Obama faced public backlash over the drone strike that killed Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker, and the Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, 37.

In a 2013 statement to the National Defense University, President Obama defended the legality of the drone program, stating, “America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.” However, are drone strikes legal under domestic and international law? And what are their human rights implications?

DOMESTIC LAW AND THE AUTHORIZATION FOR THE USE OF MILITARY FORCE

Domestically, the justification for drone strikes has largely come from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a congressional act passed in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The original text of the act authorizes the President of United States “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those they determine to be involved in the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.

The Act, which has not been revised since its passage in 2001, remains the principle justification for military force against Al-Qaeda and its associates, including the use of drone strikes. Only 60 words in length, it does not speak specifically to the use of drones, nor does it address the subsidiary groups and evolutions of Al-Qaeda that have risen in the last fourteen years. But the language “all necessary and appropriate force” has allowed presidential administrations to interpret the authorizations broadly, allowing for continued and growing targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

There have been many critics of the continued use of the AUMF, both from Democrats and Republicans, asserting that the original purpose of the statute does not conform with the changing nature of war. As terrorist groups continue to grow and evolve, the AUMF is used as a blank check for the U.S. to engage in a sort of “forever war,” without seeking Congressional reauthorization for involvement in new conflicts. Moreover, legal scholars have argued that the law may not authorize the targeted killings of those who are indirectly or loosely associated with Al-Qaeda. Critics have expressed concern over the United States’ legal ability to use drones on Americans. Some have also said that the current drone program, which targets individuals in Yemen or Somalia without establishing clear ties between them and Al-Qaeda, is based on an overly-broad interpretation of the AUMF.

Many have called for a revision of the law, which continues to allow such broad presidential powers. These revisions are becoming more pertinent as questions arise about if the AUMF can extend in legal scope to justify military force against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), which did not exist at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and thus, does not fall under the original parameters of the AUMF.

There are currently two proposed amendments to the law that seek to approve military force in Iraq and Syria. The White House proposed a version that would allow the President to use the armed forces as he determines necessary against ISIS and associated groups, subject to a reauthorization of the act every three years. Despite the administration’s insistence that the proposed bill would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground operations, many criticized the text of the statute as too broad, leaving wide discretionary use of power to use the armed forces. A subsequent revised proposal made by members of Congress sought to confine the authorization of military force to only ISIS, and decrease the scope of presidential discretion. Both proposed versions would limit their reauthorization to three years.

Despite their differences, the language of both bills does not address or regulate the use of drones. The nature of warfare is changing in a way that the world has not seen before. Thus, it is imperative that our laws and authorizations to use military force address the changing nature of war, including the use and regulation of drones.

INTERNATIONAL LEGAL CONCERNS

The predominant concern in assessing the legality of drone strikes under international law is the risk to civilian life. In their May 2010 report, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) took up the issue of “targeted killings,” a term not previously defined in international law. While the term has been used in a variety of contexts, including the use of drones, the HRC has interpreted it to encompass times when lethal force is intentionally and deliberately used, with a degree of pre-meditation, against an individual or individuals specifically identified in advance. The United States has adapted the military tactic of targeted killings in other countries since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, causing concern in the international legal community.

The international legal argument on drones involves three principal considerations. Under international humanitarian law, targeted killing is only lawful in times of armed conflict when a target in question is a “combatant” or “fighter.” In the case of a civilian, it is only lawful during the time a person “directly participates in hostilities.” Given the changing landscape of warfare, the exact definition of these terms continues to be the subject of an ongoing legal debate.

Under human rights law, a killing by a state is only legal if it is required to protect life and there are no other means, of preventing that threat to life. In the case of targeted killings across state borders, the HRC clarified that targeted killings conducted outside of the territory of a country’s borders does not violate sovereignty if the other state consents. Furthermore, it is legal if the country conducting the killing is doing so in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter because the other country is unwilling or unable to stop armed attacks launched from its territory. International law permits the use of lethal force in self-defense in response to an “armed attack” as long as that force is necessary and proportionate.

The United States argues that its actions are in compliance with international law because the U.S. is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces. The U.S. further asserts that the targeted killings they conduct fall within the scope of the self-defense as defined under the Article 51 of the UN Charter. Thus, in the case of Syria and ISIS, it is imperative for the U.S. to reauthorize the AUMF in order to meet the definition of “armed conflict.”

However, despite this defense, the HRC pointed to a number of concerns with the U.S. legal justification, including: “the scope of the armed conflict in which the US asserts it is engaged, the criteria for individuals who may be targeted and killed, the existence of any substantive or procedural safeguards to ensure the legality and accuracy of killings, and the existence of accountability mechanisms.” The U.S. may continue to encounter similar international scrutiny in Syria as in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia.

CONTROVERSIES OF THE DRONE PROGRAM

The U.S. continues to face backlash over its drone program, especially in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has called for the immediate cessation of the drone program. Even so, it doesn’t seem as though future development of the drone program will halt. The administration has defended its reliance on drones as a way to decrease the effectiveness of terrorists groups, such as Al-Qaeda, who operate in remote areas. Obama has also argued that this program achieves its military objectives while avoiding civilian causalities with “near certainty.”

Despite recent controversy, and many doubting the effectiveness of drones in reducing civilian causalities, research has shown that the civilian causality rate under the drone program has actually been dropping since 2008. The number of civilians and unknowns (persons who cannot be identified) reported killed by drones in Pakistan from the beginning of President Obama’s tenure to 2011 represented 11 percent of fatalities, and in 2012 went down to 2 percent (as compared to 33 percent in the previous administration). Additionally, since 2004, the drone campaign has killed at least 49 militant leaders.

It may be the case that the United States’ reliance on drones in conducting warfare is beneficial in the long term. Proponents of the program have strong arguments for its use as opposed to traditional methods of warfare, especially in the light of evolving terrorists’ threats against the U.S. and other states. The legality of the drone program continues to be debatable, depending on whose interpretation you are relying on. But one thing remains certain: there can be no denying the tragic sense of loss faced by those who are affected by civilian causalities. Our analysis cannot be rooted in a simple cost-benefit inquiry, nor an understanding of legal mechanisms, but must instead look at the issue from a humanitarian perspective. It is imperative for the United States to increase its transparency and administrative regulation when it comes to its drone program, while also balancing prevailing national security interests. The U.S. must institute national review mechanisms of the drone program and ensure continued research into increasing technological effectiveness and accountability. Above all, the U.S. must demonstrate the utmost commitment to the sanctity of civilian life.

Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/Creative Commons


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Human rights and U.S. foreign policy: history, funding, data and action

By Shruti Banerjee

In recent years, we have seen an increase in authoritarian regimes rejecting democratic values and committing human rights violations. This crackdown on civil society poses an enormous threat to economic and political stability, making it a central issue to consider in U.S. foreign policy. To respond to these crises, the U.S. has allocated foreign policy funds with the intention of promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations. Unfortunately, the foreign affairs budget, which provides an invaluable set of tools for advancing U.S. foreign policy interests, represents less than 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, and is subject to more cuts, if both Houses reject the President’s recent request for more funding.

By analyzing the political history of integrating human rights into U.S. foreign policy, the issues with funding, the lack of data and U.S. credibility, it becomes clear that effective human rights advocacy requires multiple factors to function in harmony with each other, including: political discourse, laws protecting human rights, foreign funding that has a non-negotiable component requiring compliance with human rights policies, U.S. compliance with international laws and accurate data to help properly document and fully gauge the threat posed by human rights violations. This means competing political or economic interests cannot completely overshadow the value of rights-respecting institutions and policies.

HUMAN RIGHTS PROMOTION AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY

Despite the U.S.’ rise to superpower status after World War II, human rights did not become a central concern of the U.S. foreign policy agenda until the late 1970s. Congress was urged to push a human rights agenda by the public, which included human rights advocates, lawyers, scientists, labor unions and church groups, who all agreed that the U.S. had created a negative global presence by the late 1970s. As awareness grew around incidents like Watergate, the Vietnam War, carpet bombing in Cambodia and the U.S. support of police states in South and Central America, Congress was finally compelled to include human rights as a central topic in foreign policy and legislation. In 1974, a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued the report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for US Leadership.” It recommended that the Department of State makes human rights a priority in foreign policy, arguing that the current policy had led the US “into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.” Congress proceeded to pass legislation that required reports on human rights violations for every country receiving aid from the U.S. and prohibited economic and military assistance to governments repeatedly violating human rights unless national security or humanitarian aid concerns justified the assistance.

While Congress was pushed by their constituents to make fundamental changes in their approach to human rights, other powerful government officials disagreed. In his book, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek documented the influences and policies of Kissinger and Nixon that led to high tensions between the Executive Branch and Congress during the Nixon Administration. When Henry Kissinger was confirmed as Secretary of State in 1973 he argued that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to make “the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of US foreign policy.” The policy of realpolitik embraced by Kissinger, and subsequently the Ford administration, excluded human rights calculations. Kissinger believed human rights considerations would damage bilateral relations with U.S. allies and thwart efforts to contain the spread of communism. Under his leadership, Congress and the Executive Branch engaged in a struggle over the prominence and relevance of human rights to the U.S.’ foreign policy agenda.

It was not until 1977, with the election of President Jimmy Carter, that human rights became integrated with U.S. foreign policy. Carter argued that advancing freedom internationally would protect our national security, promote economic interests and help the U.S. regain its lost moral credibility. More specifically, Carter maintained that U.S. national security would be enhanced by the expansion of human rights and democracy around the world and that the US was obligated under international law to promote human rights abroad. Carter and subsequent administrations utilized numerous tools to promote human rights internationally, including powerful political rhetoric, sanctions, symbolic gestures of support and peace and economic and military aid. While Carter was accused of failing to thwart the threat of communism because of these policies, he promoted more awareness and governmental action on human rights issues than any administration prior.

It is important to note that attention to human rights issues do not fall squarely within political lines. Democratic and republican administrations both succeed and failed at acknowledging and preventing human rights violations. For example, President Clinton has said that his administration’s failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was his greatest regret during his presidency and his senior aides regularly apologize for this. On the other side, the Reagan Administration provided both Liberia and Somalia with arms in the 1980s, building up the oppressive regimes of Samuel Doe and Siad Barre. While the U.S. successfully prevented Soviet influence in those countries, the lack of consideration for democracy and human rights led both Liberia and Somalia to become failed states, rampant with human rights violations. Our political rhetoric towards human rights abuses may have changed since the Carter era, but our policies and funding have not caught up.

FUNDING FOR FOREIGN AID, HUMAN RIGHTS AND DATA COLLECTION

The U.S. foreign affairs budget represents a mere 1 percent of the annual budget and recent changes in the U.S. political climate have made it significantly harder for the Obama Administration to push for more foreign aid and human rights funding. The tensions in passing budgetary laws can be seen in the current Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) budget battle. Despite Obama Administration’s request for $47.8 billion in base funding for FY16, the House Appropriations Committee has only approved a $40.5 billion base budget, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has only approved a budget of $39.0 billion in base funding. (Base funding represents the U.S.’ continuing commitment to foreign policy missions and national security; the International Affairs budget also comprises of an Overseas Contingency Operations budget to be used in temporary emergencies.) Furthermore, the International Affairs budget has seen a general decrease in funding over the past few years, with overall FY15 funding ($50.9 billion) being 16 percent below FY10 ($56.6 billion), and base funding ($41.6 billion) reduced by nearly 20 percent from FY10 ($51.5 billion). This decrease during a time of increasing human rights and humanitarian crises is unacceptable. Moreover, accepting either the House or Senate budgets, both of which decreases International Affairs funding dramatically from the Administration’s original request and from FY10, would have detrimental effects on the ability of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue promoting democratic governments, creating allies, ensuring peace and security, stabilizing economies and trade, regulating immigration and preventing human rights violations.

Aside from the fact that both proposed budgets drastically cuts an already miniscule budget, another major issue is that U.S. aid often goes to countries with poor human rights records. While our leaders have denounced continuing human rights violations in strong political rhetoric, our funding, policies and legislation have not yet matched this discourse. A stark example of this is the U.S.’s continued aid to Egypt after the government committed serious human rights violations, which were internationally documented by various human rights groups, journalists and social media platforms. Instead of instating a non-negotiable human rights compliance clause for foreign aid, the U.S. waived conditionality requirements on aid to Egypt.

It is also highly debated which countries should receive funding and which abuses require more attention and aid. These problems can be somewhat alleviated by increased transparency and disclosure of governmental reports on human rights conditions in various countries, pursuant to the Foreign Assistance Act. Extensive data collection on human rights violations occurring in countries that are not currently receiving U.S. aid is another important solution. According to Foreign Affairs, these efforts are particularly crucial in countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and Kenya, where governments are actively passing laws restricting the work of NGOs and human rights groups. This includes making it difficult to register with the government, organize public events and collect data on human rights abuses. These same regimes are also passing laws making it more difficult for their citizens to be politically critical, organize demonstrations or voice opposing opinions on the internet. Accurate data is an integral part of effective advocacy and legislating and more transparency and data collection on human rights abuses is vital for documenting, analyzing and preventing these atrocities from continuously occurring.

EFFECTIVELY PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS DOMESTICALLY AND ABROAD

What would a compelling, rights-based foreign policy look like? According to a statement by the Brookings Institute, the first criteria for effective human rights promotion is credibility. Put simply, a government cannot promote human rights abroad if it is not observing them domestically and internationally. As discussed in previous articles, the U.S. violates human rights policies on its own soil by failing to prevent hate crimes and domestic violence. Furthermore, the U.S. is struggling with rampant police brutality, structural racism and inhumane prison conditions at home, as well as torture abroad. Our lack of credibility in human rights prevention and promotion has made it difficult for other countries to take us seriously and respect international human rights law. Moreover, human rights cannot be used as a pretext for pushing other foreign policy goals, such as engaging in a foreign conflict or accomplishing a domestic political goal.

In order to effectively promote human rights abroad, the U.S. needs to start by complying with human rights laws while actively promoting their implementation abroad. This requires making human rights a fundamental part of our foreign policy through rhetoric, political pressure and funding. More specifically, we must view human rights not solely as a moral or religious obligation, but as a fundamental tool to increase peace, security and economic prosperity around the world. In their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found that more equal societies with less violence have a greater overall quality of life, not just for poor people, but for all income classes. Wilkinson and Pickett’s analysis can be extended to the international community: We can achieve greater economic and social prosperity in our own country by abiding by human rights laws and promoting equality abroad.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons