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The EU Needs a United Front on Drones

30/04/2013 17:29 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST

Last week, I spoke on a panel of experts about drones at the European Parliament. Entitled the "Human Rights Implications of the Use of Drones," it was joint hearing, sponsored by the Subcommittee for Human Rights and the Subcommittee for Security and Defense. In a world where the "war on terror" seems to inspire state actors into increasingly excessive reactions, the intersection between defense, security and human rights is exactly where the drones debate should be.

The timing of the hearing was fortuitous, taking place two days after a similar hearing in the United States Senate. Coming on the heels of several recent high-profile conferences regarding this particular technology, it's clear that the topic of drones is finally attracting significant attention from political stakeholders and policy wonks, long after entering popular consciousness through outlets like Wired, Salon, Rolling Stone, theNew York Times, and the Huffington Post.

At the hearing, I called upon the European Union to develop a coordinated, coherent position on the use of drones in armed conflict, and to do so with utmost haste. The EU needs to be an ethical, moral, and legal counterbalance to the United States regarding the use of armed drones, and to play a leading role in developing the international standards which are emerging to govern their use. When the International Committee of the Red Cross has finally gone on record to state that certain aspects of the drone wars are "problematic," it is obvious that the time is ripe for action.

The more idealistic amongst us might hope that the EU would be at the forefront of this debate because of its repeatedly stated commitments to its "core values," as set out in the Treaty of Lisbon, which include human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights. Nevertheless, my realpolitik prediction is that when and if the EU does make a concerted effort to start influencing the drones dialogue, it will do so out of self-interest. And it most certainly is in the EU's interest to develop an alternative to the American narrative on drones, for no other reason than to avoid being held responsible for America's wrecking ball yet again.

Every time the U.S. unilaterally changes the rules of the game - coming up with "novel" interpretations of international law to fit its current military agenda - the rest of the world plays catch-up, to its everlasting detriment. This was particularly true of the Bush Years and their accompanying Torture Memos: most observers (including the U.S. Supreme Court) disagreed that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint." But by the time the chattering classes became informed enough to muster outrage at John Woo, Alberto Gonzales et al, the damage had been done: nearly 800 men imprisoned in Guantanamo, rendered through black sites and secret prisons, bearing physical the physical and mental scars of torture inflicted along the way.

And yet, there has been almost zero accountability in the United States for any blatantly illegal acts that have taken place so far during the "war on terror." Hiding behind the spectre of national security and complacent courts, successive U.S. administrations have managed to stay above the fray, plotting their next extrajudicial move in relative safety. Europe has not been so lucky.

Given its much more embedded human rights infrastructure, European countries have been periodically held responsible for their acts - or omissions - in the fraught years after 9/11. Former "high value detainee" (now forgotten victim) Abu Zubeydah's case against the CIA is finally proceeding at the European Court of Human Rights. But it is Poland in the spotlight, and Poland that will be ultimately held liable for any human rights violations, not America's intelligence agency. And the United Kingdom recently paid £2.2 million (nearly $3.5 million) to Sami Al-Saadi, a high-profile Libyan dissident rather than publicly litigate claims that its spy shop MI6 was complicit in the 2004 rendition of him and his family from Hong Kong to Gaddafi's Libya. Correspondence found after the fall of Tripoli clearly proves that the operation was conceived by the CIA, and yet no CIA officers have appeared in court, and the U.S. has not paid any money in compensation for its misdeeds.

The DOJ White Paper and its alarming expansion of what can reasonably be considered an "imminent" attack or a "non-international armed conflict" (the definitions of which were not previously in much dispute) is the Americans' latest volley in the battle to reinterpret international law to fit their counter-terrorism needs. Europe needs to present a united front in pushing back against this encroachment on dearly-held international legal principles. It should also be the moral authority in placing the terrorization of civilians at the heart of any drones debate.

Do it for human rights. Do it out of self-interest. But please - do it.