Change My Mind: Is Drone Warfare Ethical And Effective?

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As the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the RAF carried out its first drone strike operated from the UK this week, the question of whether the use of unmanned drones to target enemies is an ethical, or even effective, form of warfare is set to rise up the political agenda.

The MoD claims that drones play a vital role supporting military operations in Afghanistan and helps to save the lives of British forces, allies and those of Afghan civilians, while critics, including Reprieve's Hilary Stauffer, say that drones put civilians at unnecessary risk and allow politicians to make it easier to launch military interventions.

Conveniently, last week the Oxford Union debated the motion: 'This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective'. Here, two Oxford students, Konstantinos Chryssanthopoulos and Hasan Dindjer, bring the debate to the Huffington Post UK and argue whether the use of drones is acceptable.

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Konstantinos Chryssanthopoulos First year law student at the University of Oxford

Last week the Oxford Union debated the motion 'This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective'.

Speaking for the proposition were Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Kenneth Anderson, law professor at the American University, and journalist and author David Aaronovitch. Opposing the motion were Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK; Naureen Shah of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Jeremy Waldron, legal and political theorist of Oxford and NYU.

Konstantinos Chryssanthopoulos makes the case for the motion.

As humanity has evolved so too have the methods with which we wage war. From the longbow, to the gun and even the nuclear bomb, every development has been about being able to inflict more damage to our enemy at a lower human cost. Now in the 21st Century there is a new weapon that governments have at the disposal, namely, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more commonly referred to as drones. Although instead of causing mass damage, these drones have the accuracy to carry out assassinations on foes thousands of miles away.

Indeed, their use has been surrounded by numerous criticisms which stem primarily from the belief that they are different to all weapons that have preceded them. When this very debate was held at the Oxford Union on Thursday 25 April, the opposition rightly indentified that drone strikes come with a lower the cost of engagement and they argued that this leads to their more frequent use by distancing the actors from the physical attack. They also referred to a 'PlayStation mentality' that makes using a drone strike easier for any person that the killing should be because of how disconnected they are from the result of their act.

However, this latter thesis does not have sufficient evidence to be fully proved and furthermore, as the proposition highlighted several times there is a very thorough and clear process that occurs before any drone strike is used preventing a 'trigger happy' approach. Moreover, the former argument concerning the lower cost of engagement is in fact an argument that does a lot more to support drone warfare rather than undermine it. By having a lower cost of engagement, high risk missions can be performed without putting at risk the lives of military personnel. This is certainly no bad thing; after all if even a single life of a serviceman can be saved during a war then surely it is a nation's duty to choose that course of action.

Another point that must be considered is that if we were to ban drone warfare what the alternatives would be. The opposition in this debate drew attention to the idea of non-intervening or attempting to capture the targets however in reality, neither option is usually viable. The high profile targets are simply too far into hostile territories for soldiers to capture and often in areas surrounded by civilians making an air strike too risky. It has been suggested that diplomacy might be the right answer but it must be remembered that the enemy whom is targeted by governments using drones are not nations; they are extremist individuals who themselves do not abide by the laws of war and would not be open to negotiate.

The opposition in this debate also will question the accuracy of this technology; they question the pinpoint nature of the weapon and quote various numbers of civilian deaths to prove this point. However, what must be made clear is that while drones are not perfectly precise they are far more precise than nearly all other weapons. This is largely due to the longer 'loiter time' they can sustain. What this means is that they can hover over a target for hours on end waiting for the exact moment when there will be no collateral damage or at its lowest. Compared to a pilot in a plane or a soldier on the ground their ability to survey is unparalleled. Moreover, it must be remembered that there is no weapon out there that is totally accurate but drones are far more effective as they only strike when they have the best chance and can never be rushed into acting.

Additionally we must consider the result of using drone strikes, it cannot be disputed that the leadership and weapon factories of organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been severally damaged as a result of their use. Many key figures that were hidden deep in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan would have been totally inaccessible to any other form of attack and yet are always susceptible to drone strikes. Surely this argument highlights just how efficient drones are as they have effectively destroyed these groups' leadership and weapons without risking a single soldier's life.

The final issue that must be addressed is that of legality, in the current theatre of war the line between combatants and non-combatants has been severely blurred. The enemy no longer is a nation, nor do they wear a uniform. They hide out of reach of any army and use anonymity as a weapon. Therefore, the traditional method of warfare can no longer be used, to win such a war nation's armies and weapons must adapt. Drone warfare is one such evolution, it allows nation to strike its enemies where they hide. As the battlefield has become delocalised so too must the weapons' reach and drone warfare achieves just that.

In conclusion, while the technology is far from perfect, drone warfare is not only a legitimate and legal weapon but also a necessary one given the circumstances of conflicts these days. For the opposition to suggest it is neither ethical or efficient is both false and naive as no other alternative could adequately achieve the success seen through the use of drones.

Hasan Dindjer Law student at the University of Oxford

Last week the Oxford Union debated the motion 'This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective'.

Speaking for the proposition were Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Kenneth Anderson, law professor at the American University, and journalist and author David Aaronovitch. Opposing the motion were Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK; Naureen Shah of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Jeremy Waldron, legal and political theorist of Oxford and NYU.

Hasan Dindjer makes the case for the opposition.

President Obama first entered the White House promising to end the worst excesses of George W. Bush's War on Terror. He rightly condemned extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without trial and torture as deplorable and counter-productive. But his own administration promptly began its radical expansion of a drone programme which had been only embryonic under his predecessor. Missiles fired from drones have now killed at least several hundred civilians and have seriously injured many more, predominantly in Pakistan and Yemen. The targets of these strikes are decided upon in secret meetings between the President and his advisors. Accountability is limited in the extreme. Whilst an outline of the administration's legal position is now trickling out, many fundamental questions about the practical operation of this new form of warfare remain shrouded in a mist of euphemism and obfuscation. For those of us who had hoped, optimistically and naïvely, that Mr Obama's counter-terrorism policy would be more thoughtful and more respecting of human rights, the normalisation of drone use has been bitterly disappointing.

Still, there are many who defend the use of drones. Some defenders wish to narrow the debate so that it's not about how drones are in fact used. Benjamin Wittes argued that if there were any circumstances in which it would be justifiable to use drones, this was enough to conclude that they were an ethical and effective platform. Reducing the debate to such a narrow and weak proposition, however, risks distracting us from the more important task of assessing drone killings as an actual instrument of (predominantly) American foreign policy. That there is some conceivable use for a weapon does not mean that its systematic use in particular countries is a good idea.

Wittes and Kenneth Anderson also relied on a related argumentative strategy: claiming that drones are defensible because they are more precise than other technologies. But this is premised on the notion that the efficacy and morality of drone strikes should be judged against an imagined alternative world in which tomahawk missiles and aerial bombardment are used across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia instead. Few opponents of drones realised they had signed up for that. In any case, it is doubtful whether these other weapons would be used given that, as proponents of drones themselves accept, drones make it politically and militarily feasible to use force where it would not be otherwise. Anderson suggested that having more military options could only be a good thing - a view that would only convince someone who already accepted that the US tends to put its drone fleet towards good ends.

So the pertinent question is whether drone warfare as actually conducted can be justified. First, it's important to try to appreciate the devastation drones cause. For the many thousands who live in targeted regions, a Reaper or Predator could be flying up above at any point, day or night. There is a constant possibility of being killed, and people are understandably afraid to leave their homes. Psychological trauma is widespread.

The Obama administration has said repeatedly that the number of civilians killed is in the single digits. This is an egregious falsehood, arrived at by presumptively classifying all military-aged males in a strike zone as 'militants' (a vague term, repeated constantly in the media, which corresponds to no obvious legal classification). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, generally regarded as the most accurate source of drone casualty figures, estimates that the number of civilians killed may be as high as about 1,000 and is at least several hundred. That figure includes close to 200 children.

The wrong people get killed because the drone programme is systemically flawed. The CIA relies on paying on-the-ground informants who are unreliable: they are known to identify the wrong people to earn their fee, which is a safer bet than correctly identifying a member of a terrorist organisation and risking reprisals. The US conducts 'signature strikes' which target 'patterns of behaviour', not specified individuals. This seems to have led to strikes on weddings and other innocent gatherings and there is alarming evidence of attacks on rescuers. In general, as Chris Cole explained, drone warfare becomes - has become - normalised. The consequence, at a strategic level, is that there is a greater willingness to kill those who do not pose an imminent threat, whose identity is unknown, or who could instead be captured. At a micro level, perhaps because drone pilots are unusually detached and removed from the violence they inflict, there are worrying signs of over-zealous use of fire-power. And if, bearing all this in mind, one is still confident in the US's ability to pick out only the most dangerous terrorists, it is worth recalling its record in Guantánamo: it claimed to have detained the "worst of the worst", then released hundreds without charge.

David Aaronovitch argued that despite the harm done by drones, what matters is that by killing those at the top they help neutralise the terrorist threat. Yet, as James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognised at a recent Senate committee hearing, killing the leaders of such groups is "of little value" because new recruits simply come up to fill the ranks. The drone strikes themselves now constitute the most potent propaganda tool for jihadists, and so long as they continue there will be no shortage of those willing to risk their lives in plotting attacks and taking up arms against the US. Moreover, as Naureen Shah pointed out, terrorists have been able to move around Pakistan itself, away from drones and into cities, where they continue to plan and inflict violence. Over the long term, drone strikes do not solve but rather exacerbate the threat of terrorism, and they destabilise and delegitimise state institutions in the nations in which they occur.

Jeremy Waldron was right to press the point that drones should not be assessed in isolation. To accept drone warfare is to accept the practices that will tend to surround it: the secret death lists, the concentration of unchecked executive power, the gradual expansion in the range of targets. The use of drones over the last few years has been immensely damaging. What opponents of drone warfare must now seek to do is ensure that this dark period is treated as an exception and does not become a rule for the future.



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