Drones Lend Dangerous Silence To War

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The Obama administration has greatly increased the use of armed drones in the war in Afghanistan. Also increasing are concerns from military analysts and human rights groups, who say the drones are committing targeted assassinations and killing innocent civilians; Americans just can't see it. Host Scott Simon speaks with John Radsan of the William Mitchell College of Law, and Mary Ellen O'Connell from the University of Notre Dame Law School.


The Obama administration has greatly increased the use of armed drones in the war in Afghanistan. Drones are relatively quiet, cheaper than a fighter jet and can reach remote places with deadly force without risk to U.S. troops or pilots. And many drones are controlled by spy agencies so their operations can be kept secret.

But the increasing use of drones has raised concerns from human rights groups, who say the drones are responsible for committing targeted assassinations and killing innocent civilians. Americans just can't see it. The debate will continue, but we want to open it up today by speaking with two experts.

John Radsan is the director of the National Security Forum and a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law. He joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Mr. Radsan, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN RADSAN: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: And we're also joined by Mary Ellen O'Connell. She's a research professor at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She joins us from WSND in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Thank you for joining us.

MARY ELLEN O: You're quite welcome.

SIMON: It is the policy of the U.S. government to not conduct targeted assassinations, although I know there've been big loopholes over the years. So are these strikes always legal?


In my view, the strikes - using drones that are outside armed conflict hostilities - are not consistent with international law. Drones are, Scott, really a battlefield weapon. They deliver the same ordinance, the same weapons as an airplane or a helicopter - bombs and missiles. Outside of armed conflict hostilities, I think we have a real problem under international law.

SIMON: What happens - and this is not a theoretical question - if you send a drone that delivers a bomb to blow up someone who's identified as a Taliban leader, and let's say a dozen, as far as we know, perfectly innocent civilians are killed?

CONNELL: That is exactly some of the scenarios that have been occurring and why I'm so concerned. So in the first instance, we have to be much more careful about where we're using drones, because in armed conflict hostilities we do tolerate a certain level of civilian casualties. We don't tolerate that outside of armed conflict.

So that's why it's very important then in the first instance we only use this weapon in armed conflict hostilities. But I don't think the United States has sufficient argument for using them under an argument of self-defense or that we're in any kind of worldwide war against al-Qaida everywhere where we find them. This just isn't consistent with international law.

SIMON: John Radsan, let me try and sharpen the question a bit for you. What if a strike like that occurs and U.S. forces get the Taliban leader they want, but if 20 civilians are killed, can't it be argued that that's not a successful strike militarily because they've just made 20 families upset and who will refuse to support counterinsurgency measures?

RADSAN: As a matter of policy, I agree with your premise, that although the predators can be very effective in killing people, that's the counterterrorism tool, they can backfire on us. They can hurt us in our counterinsurgency strategy.

As a matter of law, the Geneva Conventions are precise. We have various protocols, customary international law. But these rules, they will not give us ratios, because it depends so much on the circumstances, how important is the target. So we can't give you a black letter rule of six dead or eight dead or 10 dead for every target.

SIMON: Americans might like drones because they don't risk the lives of American soldiers or pilots. But we know a lot of people overseas don't like the image of a 24-year-old kid at some secret site in Nebraska steering a drone almost like he's playing a video game that delivers a bomb on their village.

RADSAN: It does seem that it's not fair, that we're not fighting in the same way with the same tools and arms, but I don't know that it goes very far in that sense. If we use a cruise missile - the Taliban don't have those. We have our technology. It is proper. The taxpayers would want us to use all the tools we have when we're in a conflict and that conflict is supposed to serve the American interest.

What we should do is reassure the American people and the international public that this is not a video game, that the people that are operating these drones, they take it just as seriously as an F-16 pilot, that they understand that there are people that are being viewed in that screen; they need to comply with the laws that apply and they need to do something that makes sense as a part of our strategy.

CONNELL: And, Scott, I would say that I am not at all against the use of technology that protects our soldiers, and I'm with the American public on that entirely. But I do think a lot about not only the legal but the moral ramifications of the drone, the ability to kill from thousands of miles away, not just a mile or two away. And what is that doing to us a nation?

Are we really thinking through our leadership obligations to think, since we're the first ones to have this technology and to use it regularly, are we really setting the pattern for the rest of the world? Are we really setting the legal and moral norms that should be governing their use only in situations of real necessity?

SIMON: Thank you both very much.

CONNELL: You're welcome.

RADSAN: Thank you.

SIMON: John Radsan, professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law, and Mary Ellen O'Connell, professor of international law and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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