Humankind has always wished to take to the skies. The innovations of Abbas ibn Firnas and the Wright Brothers have captured the imaginations of millions, as their contributions to flight technologies gave us a chance to soar through the clouds. Today, this technology is used to transport millions around the globe, allowing passage from New York to Hong Kong in less than a day. It is also being used to assassinate thousands with bombs dropped from the sky.
Abdallah Mabkhut al-Ameri, his new wife, and roughly 60 of their friends and family were travelling in a wedding procession near the city of Rada’a in December, 2013. The newlywed couple recalled that the “mood was joyful,” as they had come from a jubilant reception with family and friends. Then, the convoy was struck by four hellfire missiles fired from a US drone. The attack killed 12, and injured twice as many. To this day, Washington has refused to officially refer to the 12 dead as anything other than “combatants” who were killed during an attempt to assassinate Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, an Al-Qaeda ringleader, and the original target of the attack.
The attack on Abdallah’s wedding is but one example of civilian casualties from drone attacks. The US response to the wedding attack has been telling as well. The claim that those killed were combatants follows a pattern—the Obama Administration’s released numbers on civilian drone casualties have been heavily scrutinized as being far too conservative, and that the actual number is over four times what the Obama Administration has admitted. Yet, what appears to be lost in the public debate on drones—which typically boils down to whether or not drones are more efficient than the military alternatives—is whether or not the nature of drones themselves is permissible. By most modern standards, it isn’t.
The US has subscribed to numerous international weapon bans in the past. The Geneva Convention, The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972, and The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1980 have all included the US, and have prohibited a myriad of weapons ranging from mines to weaponized anthrax. These treaties have all been based on a common premise: that some weapons are so despicable in nature that they aren’t worth evaluating in terms of militaristic efficacy, and therefore ought be prohibited on an international level. Proponents of drones often cite the comparatively low body count that drone usage results in as opposed to other military tactics. But body count does not absolve unforgivable weaponry, as international bans on other weapons with low body counts, like landmines, demonstrate.
International treaties have varying criteria which justify banning different weaponry. Interestingly enough, drones seem applicable to practically all of them. One, from the declaration in the Geneva Convention summary, is that “No one shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, corporal punishment or cruel or degrading treatment.” Second, from the The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, is to prevent weapons which cause unique forms of damage, like chemical weapons causing long-term lung and eye damage. Finally, from The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, nations should be prohibited from using weapons “that are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately.”
The first of these three criteria is easily met by drones. Living under the constant fear of being attacked by a non-human object that one can neither see nor hear at any moment is enough of a mental strain that it can turn entire communities upside down. A study from researchers at Stanford University and New York University, titled “Living Under Drones,” found that drones have a unique psychological impact on populations living in areas where armed drones are used. In addition, children who have been the victims of drone strikes testified before Congress, explaining their anxiety on days with blue skies (when drone strikes are most likely). The fear drones instill in these populations causes kids to avoid school, adults to avoid their jobs, and community events like weddings and funerals to be canceled. A major result of these effects is the increased vulnerability of such communities to being radicalized, often turning its inhabitants into the very enemies that drones have been used to stop.
The second criteria was made apparent from a terrible legacy imprinted on the victims of chemical warfare, as articulated by Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association: “that meant painful lung diseases, a lot of people blind for the rest of their lives…in America, there were tens of thousands of people who were scarred by exposure to mustard agent in World War I.” Again, the effects of drones readily meet such long-term damages. Those who have been injured by drones have had limbs blown off, the loss of eyes, and intense, lasting psychological damage.
Finally, the criteria from the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is perhaps the most difficult to meet, for in our current war on terror there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “unjustifiable suffering” for terrorist combatants. The US has been fine with imprisoning and torturing suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, to say nothing of the countless lives lost during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The second part of the criteria however, which prohibits weapons that affect civilians indiscriminately, is easily met by drones. For the same reason we don’t carpet bomb Mosul, attacking non-combatants in the hopes that it will also kill some of the actual combatants isn’t accepted as a morally viable method of warfare (insofar as moral warfare can exist). Drones are often used in urban areas populated by civilians, meaning that in an attempt to eliminate the enemy, civilians are often indiscriminately affected. A drone is an object, with no capacity to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant (unlike ground troops, which have human judgement).
Drones, under the values set forth by three independent weapons treaties signed and ratified by the United States, are impermissible by nature. The US may not be willing to adhere to treaties of the past or the values they represent, but such values ought to permeate the debate on drones. Too often does discourse concerning drones turn into how many civilians drones actually kill, which largely misses the point. Weaponry ought to be taken at face value, and analyzed by its very nature before being employed. If such scrutiny was used, perhaps Abdallah Mabkhut al-Ameri and his wife might have had a happier wedding day.
Featured Image Source: Jurist.org