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Op-ed: It's time for a debate of our nation's drone warfare policies

Kathleen McQuillen at Iraq War 8th anniversary rally
Kathleen McQuillen of AFSC speaks at a rally marking the eighth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. View the slideshow. Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

By Kathleen McQuillen

Originally published Nov. 3, 2013 in the Des Moines Register 

Drone technology and warfare have far outpaced the ethics to shape policy and the laws to regulate their use.

Last spring, 15 national faith-based organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, sent a letter to President Obama and Congress calling for oversight and accountability in drone warfare. At about the same time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for “public discussion of the terms of the administration’s policy of employing drones for targeted killings.”

Just last month, international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, joined two United Nations reports in concluding that human rights and humanitarian law require transparency and accountability in the use of deadly force. The reports suggest those requirements are absent in the United States’ drone warfare.

These statements help lift the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the ongoing use of “remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles” in the ongoing U.S. war against suspected terrorists.

The following policies and practices highlight some of the problems with drone warfare:

Absence of due process and oversight

The president or those whom he designates (the CIA or the military) play the role of judge, jury and executioner. There is no trial and no accountability or oversight in the deadly decisions made. If drone killings are justified as part of a legitimate war, the actions must be subject to the restrictions placed on warring countries under international law.

Civilian casualties

The Guardian newspaper reports that between 3,000 and 4,500 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes—over 200 were children, and at least 400 were civilians. The secrecy of U.S. drone policy makes documenting exact numbers difficult. The problem is further exacerbated by the U.S. definition of “militants”—all males 14 years and older in specific areas are considered by the U.S. to be militants and, therefore, appropriate targets.

“Global War on Terror”

Used by the U.S. to justify drone strikes around the world, this claim undermines international human rights laws protecting the right to life and further expands the concept of war to having no time or geographic limits.

Removal of a “very human check” on violence

As stated in the joint letter from the faith-based organizations, “Human nature itself serves as a check on lethal violence. Coming face to face with someone described as an enemy requires a deliberate choice to override a deep human instinct against killing.” The letter raises a deep ethical question of where this new technology leads us “as a species.”


Although the U.N. reports are preliminary, with a final report due in 2014, they do note that accountability is essential in the protection of human life. The reports call on the U.S. to be more transparent in its use of drones for targeted killings.

Amnesty International also calls for transparency, noting “the USA appears to be exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the region to evade accountability for its violations.” Amnesty International asserts there are some cases of drone strikes that constitute “war crimes” and that U.S. military personnel should be charged with such.

These reports raise cautions about the relative ease of drone warfare and the danger that portends for the future.

One of the recent U.N. reports notes, “Although drones are not illegal weapons, they can make it easier for states to deploy deadly and targeted force on the territories of other states. As such, they risk undermining the protection of life in the immediate and longer terms. If the right to life is to be secured, it is imperative that the limitations posed by international law on the use of force are not weakened by broad justifications of drone strikes.”

The people of the United States—as the primary builder, user and seller of this technology—must demand an end to drone warfare while the ethical and legal policies are debated, shaped and codified.