Barack Obama

Drone strikes test legal boundaries

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Drones are the perfect weapon for America's fight against its far-off enemies. The unmanned aircraft operated remotely from thousands of kilometres away can spy, zero in and fire a missile or drop a bomb on a target without putting a pilot's life at risk. Unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama has dramatically increased their deployment in the United States' fight against terrorists. What he has yet to do, though, is to justify that their use is legal, ethical, moral and in the interests of his country.

Under international law, there are certainly doubts, reiterated each time a prominent target is hit or when innocent civilians are killed. Such was the case earlier this month when Abu Yahya al-Libi, the second-in-command of the extremist terror group al-Qaeda, was killed by a drone strike in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan. While the strike was welcomed by Americans, it was condemned by Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty, and fresh debate was sparked over the right of the US to carry out extrajudicial executions and whether the rules of war had been violated. The concern in Pakistan is understandable, just as it has been in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, where drones have also been used by the US.

But Obama is also under growing pressure at home to explain how and why he orders drone strikes. There is particular concern as he campaigns for re-election. Political opponents contend he is using drones to boost his popularity. His defenders point to the legislation approved three days after al-Qaeda's assaults on September 11, 2001, that gives him authority to use 'all necessary and appropriate force' against any country, group or person believed to be involved or 'to prevent future acts of international terrorism'. That was the basis for last year's killing rather than capture of al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden, for the death of Libi and for hundreds of drone missions that the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims have killed more than 1,000 civilians.

To critics, the president has the power to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, without judicial oversight or the approval of lawmakers. They want to know how people end up on the list of targets and why they are not given the right to defend themselves. Legal documents that allow for Americans to be killed overseas, as happened in Yemen last year, remain secret. It is as if Obama is judge, jury and executioner.

The US holds itself up as a beacon of democracy, but the manner in which its drone attacks are carried out do not fit the American way. As other countries and groups acquire the technology, there is a risk that they will behave in the same manner. Fear and instability are already being created. It is time for Obama to be transparent and for greater international discussion so that rules on drones can be agreed upon.




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