The Obama speech – does it make a difference?

On Thursday, President Obama made his much anticipated speech on the future of the US’ counter-terrorism strategy and directly addressed his government’s drones programme.  Under his watch, this programme has increased exponentially and has been marred by accusations of excessive civilian casualties, violations of international law, and concerns at the negative impact of this approach on radicalisation and increased anti-Americanism.  His speech was preceded by a letter from the Attorney General, to the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, in which it was acknowledged that the US had carried out drone attacks on four US citizens.  These were: Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen and Jude Mohammed in Pakistan.

The key points made in his speech were:

  • the rejection of a “boundless ‘global war on terror’”, closely followed by an articulation as to why the US has been involved in the various countries in which it uses drones:

Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives fighting extremists. In Yemen, we are supporting security forces that have reclaimed territory from AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. In Somalia, we helped a coalition of African nations push al Shabaab out of its strongholds. In Mali, we are providing military aid to a French-led intervention to push back al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and help the people of Mali reclaim their future.

  • But, Obama advocated that the drone programme is part of “just war…. a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”  All of these justifications have been previously challenged by legal scholars, activists and others.  However, he did recognise the seductive power of drones, noting they can “lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as cure-all for terrorism”.
  • He highlighted his “Presidential Policy Guidance” which remains secret but, he claimed, would increase oversight and accountability.
  • On the subject of civilians, he acknowledged that there have been civilian casualties but advocated that without the use of drones, and by not adopting a more conventional approach to warfare, such  as “invasions”, the US had avoided mission creep which could have led to new wars.  He further  stated “There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports” and then pertinently ignored why this gap might exist – namely a lack of transparency around the use of drones.  He also studiously ignored the fact that the casualty counting undertaken by organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had robust methodologies and were considered by many drone watchers to be a key, authoritative source.
  • Obama then claimed that there had been strong oversight of the drones programme via briefings to the relevant Congressional Committees.  However, he also noted that he is considering two additional aspects of improved oversight.  The first, a special court to consider and authorise strikes; an option countered by the argument that it raised “serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority”.   The second idea was “the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch” which he argued “avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process”.
  • He finished his speech with a lament as to the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay and called on “Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO” but failed to set a clear time frame for the transfer of cleared detainees.  Both Reprieve and CagePrisoners have both published short evaluations of this aspect of the speech.

Obama’s speech was accompanied by the publication of a document, U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities, which shed more light on the US approach to this issue.  Its three key points are: the need for a legal basis for using lethal force; the need for a target to pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons”; and respect for national sovereignty and international law.  The following criteria should also be met:

1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present; 2) Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; 3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation; 4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and 5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.

While these criteria are welcome from the perspective that at the least the US has some standards for their drone use, there is a serious concern that these criteria will function as a new legal standard for drone use, divorced from a relevant basis in international humanitarian or human rights law.

There is much for the UK to consider in this speech, not least the merits of being more open about the use of drones by Government.  This was further advocated on Monday by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in a speech before the 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.

I also continue to be profoundly disturbed at the human rights implications of the use of armed drones in the context of counter-terrorism and military operations, with an increasing number of States seeking to acquire such weapons. The worrying lack of transparency regarding the use of drones has also contributed to a lack of clarity on the legal bases for drone strikes, as well as on safeguards to ensure compliance with the applicable international law. Moreover, the absence of transparency has created an accountability vacuum, in which victims have been unable to seek redress.

President Obama’s statement suggests that in the future there will be a shift towards greater transparency by the United States, as well as stricter controls on the use of drones. Nevertheless, I urge all States to be completely transparent regarding criteria for deploying drone strikes, and to ensure that their use complies fully with relevant international law. Where violations do occur, States should conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations, and provide victims with an effective remedy.

While Obama’s speech left a number of fundamental questions unaddressed, and glossed over key aspects of the criticism his Administration has sustained as a result of the use of drones, it is at least a start toward greater transparency.  That said, the US commitment to drones shows little sign of abating with a drone strike in Pakistan today, 29th May, the first strike after the Pakistani elections on 11 May and the shooting down of a drone, believed to be US owned, over Somalia, yesterday.  In this respect, while his speech may have bought him kudos in the US for whom the lack of transparency and arguably the lack of a sustainable strategy of the drones programme have been issues of concern, those living under drones can draw little comfort from his speech.

Beer, Tacos and … Drones?

The race towards greater use of unmanned air vehicles has taken an unexpected and innovative direction with drones being developed for food and beer delivery. What is being dubbed as the ‘OppiKoppi Beer Drone’ will be on hand at a music festival in South Africa to deliver alcohol to the thirsty.

Festival goers at the OppiKoppi music festival will be able to order a beer from their phones via an app, and the hand guided drone will deliver their order to their location, releasing a can attached to a parachute. The deliveries will take place on a special campsite designated ‘District 9’. Whilst the drone is currently hand guided, there are plans that the drone will eventually become fully automated, operating from a GPS grid. The current drone can only carry one can, but development is ongoing with the aim of the drone being able to carry two or three cans. Continue reading

Does size matter?

Last week, news broke that a Jetstream, 16 seater aircraft been flown from an airfield near Preston to Inverness, a journey of 500 miles.  According to the BBC, the plane was controlled by a pilot on the ground, instructed by the National Air Traffic Services.  However, it was flown in integrated airspace i.e. that used by other passenger aeroplanes.  The flight was carried out by Astrea, a UK consortium which has received funding from a range of companies, including BAE Systems, as well as the Technology Strategy Board, sponsored by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.  This test flight built on 20 earlier trial flights carried out last summer by BAE Systems over the Irish Sea.  Much was made in these tests of ASTREA’s “electronic eye” which was able to detect and avoid bad weather and “sense and avoid” mid-air collisions.  At the same time, the Miami Herald reported that, in Afghanistan, unmanned cargo helicopters were used to drop supplies to a remote base in northern Helmand.  Continue reading

Home grown drones – developments in Vietnam

Vietnam has become the latest country to acquire unmanned aerial technology.  On the 5th April Vietnamese scientists successfully tested drones that had been created and developed by the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.  The tests were carried out at the Space Technology Institute in Hanoi. Three drones were tested out of the five that have been developed by the Academy; the culmination of a five year research project started in 2008. Vietnamese news organisation Tuoitrenews reported that the drones are equipped with an autopilot system, cameras and equipment for scientific research.  The drones are small in comparison to their British counterparts, with the smallest weighing just four kg and the largest 170kg. The armed Reaper system, currently in use in Afghanistan, weighs 2,223 kg without any armaments attached. Continue reading

The elephant in the room – will drone strikes be on the agenda of the Somalia conference?

Today (7 May), a conference opens in London focused on rebuilding Somalia.  The event is jointly hosted by the UK Government and the Government of Somalia, and draws together relevant international governments and civil society organisations.  According to the UK Government’s website, the conference provides several opportunities:

  • for the Somali Government to share its plans for developing the country’s armed forces, police, justice sector, and public financial management systems;

  • for the international community to agree how it will support the implementation of those plans; and

  • for the Somali Government to outline how it intends to resolve the outstanding political issues within Somalia.

Issues to be considered include addressing sexual violence, piracy, famine and the ongoing threat from Al-Shabaab as well as how to develop Somalia’s security forces.  But will the subject of drone attacks be on the agenda?  The US has been carrying out drone strikes in Somalia since June 2011 as part of their broader “war on terror” operations in the country, though the use of drones for surveillance purposes began in 2009.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between three and nine drones strikes, with a total reported killed of between seven and 27.  There are a number of challenges in establishing an accurate picture of such attacks due to the limited international presence in the country, the paucity of communications and the risks to journalists, and others, on the ground who might collect such data. Continue reading

Killer Robots Campaign Launched in London

Killer Robots Campaign Launched in London

On Tuesday 23rd April 2013, Human Rights Watch, Article 36, the International Committee for Robot Arms Controls (ICRAC) and the Nobel Women’s Initiative launched the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in London.  The Campaign calls for a pre-emptive ban on the development and testing of autonomous weapons systems to be achieved by a “new international law (a treaty), as well as through national laws and other measures”.  For the uninitiated, we refer to Human Rights Watch’s excellent report on this issue, Losing Humanity which sets out the three categories of weapons platforms.  “Human in the loop” weapons require a human to select the targets and decide when to use lethal force.  “Human on the loop” weapons enable a target to be selected and force delivered by the machine under the oversight of a human, meaning that the action can be over-ridden.  The final category, and the target of the campaign are  “Human out of the loop” weapons which are capable of selecting targets and delivering lethal force without any human input. Continue reading

Who owns this drone? The case of the drone that wasn’t sent by Hezbollah

Worries over the proliferation of drones have escalated further as another drone was flown into Israeli airspace last week.  The drone was shot down by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), approximately five miles west of Haifa, a port to the north of the country. Initial reports suggested that the drone was launched by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamic militant group.

The Israeli Defence Force released a report on the incident, stating the drone

was tracked by IDF ground and aerial surveillance for the duration of its flight path as it attempted to approach Israel’s coast. Israel Air Force aircraft intercepted the UAV and successfully downed the target five nautical miles off the coast of the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

The Israeli Air Force subsequently launched a sea search for the wreckage of the drone.  The incident has caused great concern in Israel, especially as the Israeli Prime Minister was travelling  to attend a ceremony in a Druze village in Northern Israel, at the time the drone was intercepted. The Prime Minister’s helicopter was grounded until the Israeli Air Force had dealt with the incident and deemed the airspace clear. Continue reading