Talks needed on use of drones

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 6:16am

US President Barack Obama's new counter-terrorism doctrine has run into heavy crossfire. To some Republican opponents, his plan to redefine the global "war on terror" as a more targeted effort to eliminate threats to America is a retreat that underestimates the risk posed by Islamic extremists. To human-rights campaigners, the president's call for repeal of the 2001 blanket authorisation for the use of military force was marred by its failure to unequivocally reject the disputed legal basis for a range of abuses. These include indefinite detention of terrorist suspects, military commissions that are travesties of fair and open trials, and unlawful killings.

The complex political and legal conflict about how to keep America safe comes down to one word - drones. The unmanned, remote-controlled strike aircraft have come to symbolise the principle that the US has a legal right to go where it pleases and kill terrorists without trial. They are responsible for thousands of deaths since 2003, including innocent civilians as well as terrorists. There is a growing demand for them from other governments and a risk that they also will use them in legally questionable ways.

The "global war" legal opinions written for the Bush administration after 9/11 were used to justify the worst forms of inhuman treatment of detainees - since stopped - and rampant wiretapping, now put on a legal footing. This newspaper has argued for a judicial system to regulate drone strikes, as suggested by some US senators. Obama now proposes oversight by a special court or board to authorise lethal action, including drone strikes outside declared war zones. The aim would be the "highest standard" of near-certainty that no innocent civilians would be hit. Nonetheless, human rights activists fear the new policy risks creating "kill courts". The best defence against that is transparency in the principles and procedures of the panels, and an initiative to launch serious international discussion on rules governing the use of drones.