Use and abuse of drones: what about accountability and international law?

Under President Obama’s Presidency, I remember very well how Marco Pannella was strongly criticizing and condemning the use of drones for “eliminating” targets outside war zones. He immediately saw the risk of abuses when using these machines guided by humans and the big issue of responsibility and accountability.

When I read this article in the Economist, published on 16th March, “The president is making it easier to order lethal drone strikesRules put in place under Barack Obama are being loosened” I immediately remembered the chats I had with Marco on these issues. Again he seemed to be right.

The Trump administration will apparently loosen even more the rules for counter-terrorism operations laid down by its predecessor in the utilisation of drones for killings outside war zones. Under these even more “flexible rules” avoiding civilian deaths will no longer be an overriding priority. President Trump seems to be willing to delegate much more of the decision-making to the Pentagon.

This short piece doesn’t intend in any way to bring final answers to very important ethical and legal questions but just some thoughts on how the direction some governments are taking with regards drones is fundamentally wrong to my eyes.

The United States as well as many more States including in Europe are using lethal drones unilaterally, without transparency or accountability, and will do so more in the future. Let me remind readers that we are talking about the utilisation of drones outside war zones, America can kill its “enemies”, wherever they are, wherever an “enemy” has been identified by the intelligence. In these cases, because you need to act very fast when a target is identified, the chain of command needs to be very efficient and quick.

This poses some serious ethical and legal questions to my eyes. What is the difference between a human firing with a machine gun and a human pressing the fire button when commanding a drone from distance? How can you avoid abuses? What is the percentage of “collateral damages” acceptable by the Government outside war zones?

These ordered killings are executed by a machine guided by a soldier from distance, but it is the State that legitimises and makes these killings possible. Who is responsible at the end and moreover in case of innocents killed can an International court challenge the assassination? If the President is no longer giving the final order, is the Pentagon responsible at the end or the individual soldier pressing the button?

The fundamental question is: where are we going?

If in the future, these methods will be used by other States which are not the established democracy that the United States represent but rather an authoritarian regime, will these killings be less tolerated, will these “collateral damages” be different then?

As citizens, shouldn’t it be in our own interest to ask our governments more transparency or accountability in the utilisation of these deadly machines?

Umberto Gambini
Former Assistant to Marco Pannella
Advisor to MEP Ramon Tremosa i Balcells
Twitter: @UGambini

 

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