Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


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The Drones are Coming, the Drones are Coming…

Matthew Matechik 

A man drives his beat up old Toyota truck down a dirt road meandering through sparse terrain. Unbeknownst to him, his every move is being watched. For a brief, almost imperceptibly, short moment he hears a loud noise. A flash! And just like that, the man is instantly dead. His body is disintegrated amidst the rubble that was his truck. A missile fired from an unseen unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or “drone”) has eliminated its target with ruthless efficiency. The strike is the successful culmination of countless hours spent finding the man, confirming his identity, confirming his affiliation, analyzing his movements, considering the legality of a strike, and finally identifying an opportunity that minimizes non-combatant casualties.

predator-firing-missile4

This scene or something like it has played out numerous times during America’s post 9/11 “War on Terror.” Drones target terrorist combatants in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen (where just last week an American drone strike reportedly killed senior al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari[i]).

The drone program has been effective. According to some unconfirmed reports, drone strikes have killed as many as 2,000 combatant terrorists in Pakistan alone and the frequency of strikes has increased dramatically since President Obama entered office.[ii]  The drone has become a proven weapon in the ongoing fight against global terrorism. The US government has asserted that the strikes are legal under international law because they are carried out in self-defense against persons who present a continuing imminent threat and are affiliated with al-Qaida and associated forces with which the US is at war. The US further asserts that the strikes are in accordance with the Geneva Convention because the drone’s advanced technology, most notably its precision, minimizes civilian casualties and collateral damage.[iii]

The UN has criticized the US position as being based on too broad a definition of “imminence,” which must exist in order for self-defense to be legally justified.[iv] The UN critique exposes a potential problem the US has created by setting this precedent. Other nations, perhaps as many as 87 of them, are quickly building or already have their own drone fleets.[v] What will happen when these nations’ drone technology catches up to that of the US? What if those nations are hostile toward the US or its allies? Will they rely on the US understanding of self-defense to likewise justify anonymous killings of persons located outside their territory?

chinese-drones

Consider the Chinese, whose drone capabilities are rapidly catching up to those of the United States.[vi] China could easily apply the American legal argument to justify killing someone they claimed to be a Uighur separatist located in Kazakhstan, for example. What about an ethnic Uighur who happens to be a United States citizen? Could China use the American self-defense argument to justify killing this American? It would appear so as long as China deemed the American to be associated with a fighting force that China is engaged in armed conflict with. Take the logic a few steps further and it quickly becomes clear that any country could feasibly kill persons located abroad using drones by stretching the self-defense argument to suit the needs of the day.

The hypotheticals above are not far fetched. The drones are coming. The drones are coming and currently there is no formalized body of international law to regulate them beyond the general laws of war. We have the American precedent to go on but not much else.

russian-drones-omg

An international treaty governing the use of combat drones could alleviate concerns of widespread death from above. The drones do not represent the first time that technology has evolved faster than international law. At one time for example, the US was the only nation with nuclear weapons. As other nations gained the same technology, the nuclear-armed nations were able to form international treaties to regulate their use. Even enemies came to the table in the interest of humanity. So far the regulations have, thankfully, worked, at least in the sense that humans have not wiped themselves off the Earth yet. Perhaps a similar spirit of cooperation can inspire international regulation of drone warfare, although success could be difficult to come by given the high number of nations with drones.

The drones are coming. When they do, where will the battlefield be? Who will be targeted in self-defense? Can international law find a way to regulate the situation before it gets out of control? Time will tell. In the meantime, keep your eye on the sky. The drones are coming.

Matthew Matechik is an Evening J.D. student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (Class of 2016). He currently works full-time for the U.S. Federal Government as a Counterterrorism Analyst. He has a Bachelors of Arts (Magna Cum Laude, 2008) from Florida State University. All views in this blog post are Matthew’s own views and do not represent that of the U.S. Government. 

[i] http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/05/world/yemen-violence/index.html

[ii] This number is an estimate. Casualty estimates vary wildly. Official reports are not available. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/drone-strikes-killing-more-civilians-than-us-admits-human-rights-groups-say/2013/10/21/a99cbe78-3a81-11e3-b7ba-503fb5822c3e_story.html

[iii] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125206000; http://jurist.org/forum/2013/10/jordan-paust-drones-justification.php

[iv] http://www.globalresearch.ca/drone-warfare-findings-of-u-n-reports-on-extrajudicial-and-arbitrary-executions/5355601

[v] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/10/skys-the-limit-for-wide-wild-world-of-drones/?page=all

[vi] http://rt.com/news/china-stealth-drone-flight-127/


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Justification for Attacking IS – Is it Legal?

Clark Smith

In the wake of the President’s address to the nation on forthcoming US-led action against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, foreign officials abroad and legal scholars at home are lambasting the President for his presumed lack of legal justification.  In a primetime speech on September 10, the President laid out his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.  In short, his four-part strategy includes: continued air strikes against IS targets, though now expanding to Syria; increased support to forces fighting IS, in the form of additional US uniformed trainers and advisors in Iraq and providing of arms, equipment, and coordination for training to forces inside Syria; continued counterterrorism efforts aimed at denying IS necessary logistics and support by working with international partners to cut off funding, stem the inflow of foreign fighters, and countering IS propaganda; and further humanitarian assistance to those displaced by IS.  Although the President claims bipartisan support, he also claims “the authority to address the threat from ISIL.”  It is the airstrikes planned for Syria-based IS targets and the President’s presumed basis for authority to attack IS more broadly that concerns legal experts.

Iraq map locator

Both Syria and its ally Russia assert that any US airstrikes against targets in Syria would be in violation of international law.  A Syrian government spokesman warned that “any action [against IS] without the consent of the Syrian government would be an attack on Syria.”  And despite ongoing Russian involvement in the Ukraine, a Russian spokesman warned that any US action in Syria absent “an appropriate decision of the UN Security Council, [] would become an act of aggression, a crude violation of the norms of international law.”  Article 2(4) of the UN Charter would certainly seem to support Russia’s assertion of the Syrian position.  And with Russia’s position on the Security Council, a Security Council decision supporting the US strategy is all but impossible.  But, a Security Council decision condemning, or even prohibiting, the forthcoming US action in Syria is equally impossible.  Just as international law has been ineffective in curbing Russian aggression in the Ukraine, so too will it be ineffective in facilitating the efforts of any of the US’s detractors in dismantling IS.  Even if legitimate international law concerns did exist regarding the US strategy for addressing the IS threat, the US interests do, and should, outweigh those concerns (I make this argument here in my law article, on page 192).

Mapping the Syrian Conflict

More concerning to legal scholars, at least from a domestic perspective, is the President’s claim that he already has “the authority to address the threat from ISIL.”  Presumably, the President is referring to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.  The key language of that AUMF indicates…

“…the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Since being passed for combat operations in Afghanistan, the AUMF has also provided the legal basis for attacks against al Qaeda, and affiliates, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  Just last year Pentagon legal experts defended broad authority under the AUMF when testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.  According to the Pentagon legal experts, “the broad interpretation of the AUMF [] gives them the flexibility to deal with the changing threat in a lawful, effective manner.”  Members of the Committee disagreed with the broad authorization assessment, yet no specific solutions were suggested.  Just weeks after that Senate Committee hearing, the President called for a repeal of the AUMF referring to it as the “perpetual war” law.  What he did not call for, however, was a deadline by which to repeal it.  Probably not a calculated risk, but not addressing the “perpetual war” law was a good move in hind-sight.

Obama IS Announcement

In recent months, the Commander in Chief appeared to be relying on his Article II powers to prosecute the limited campaign against IS targets in Northern Iraq.  This was evidenced by the multiple War Powers Resolution letters sent to Congress keeping them informed.  Relying on this authority for the limited strikes and in light of several AUMFs being considered, if not avoided, in Congress in the run up to the President’s speech, it was no doubt quite a surprise when the President claimed he already had the necessary authority to prosecute a sustained campaign against IS.  Experts question why the President did not insist first on Congressional support, but the President has been down that road only a year earlier when Congressional support for action against Assad’s Syrian regime for their use of chemical weapons on their own citizens was clearly, and embarrassingly, unobtainable.

The President’s justification for waging sustained conflict against IS, reliance on the 2001 AUMF, is a stretch indeed.  But it is plausible.  According to the language of the AUMF, the President determines those persons or organizations that participated in the 9/11 attacks.  That was clearly al Qaeda.  Since that time, the President has retained authority to use that AUMF to attack al Qaeda affiliates in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa.  The stretch, albeit a plausible one, is identifying IS as an al Qaeda affiliate or at least something that was at one time an affiliate of al Qaeda.  IS was born of al Qaeda in Iraq and only recently did Ayman Zawahiri disavow IS.  This same organization, regardless of name, attacked US forces in Iraq during the Iraqi war and continues to carry on the legacy of the former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

In the end, the point may be moot if the President can get the Congressional authorization he very much wants, but is very reluctant to ask for.

Clark Smith is a third-year law student pursuing a concentration in International Law. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Political Science and International Relations. In addition to being a Student Fellow, he is the Submissions Editor for the Journal of International Law. His previous experience includes work in both security and policy and his previous overseas postings include Western Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia. His professional interests include international development.