PITTSFORD — Although U.S. government officials have defended strikes by unmanned aerial drones because they have killed some possible terrorists, unmanned aerial strikes cross legal and moral boundaries, argues an international law professor who recently spoke at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, told an audience of more than 100 that she believes the targeted killings of al-Qaeda operatives far from the current Afghanistan war zones violate international law. Additionally, she noted drone strikes violate the rights to life and due process.
Most importantly, drone strikes are counterproductive in that they foster anti-American sentiment and further radicalize people, O’Connell said in her May 30 talk, which was simulcast to several locations in the Diocese of Rochester and was sponsored by Catholic Charities, Pax Christi, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Mercy.
The talk marked the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s peace encyclical Pacem in Terris, which notes "true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust."
"We need people of faith and people of commitment to add their voices and prayers to call for an end to targeted killing," said O’Connell, who also is a research professor of international dispute resolution at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
She pointed out that in many instances civilians have been killed during drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria and Pakistan. She noted that 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was among seven people killed by a U.S. military drone strike in October 2011 after he left home to search for his father, radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen Sept. 30, 2011.
The teen was one of nearly 300 children and more than 4,500 people, including terrorists, who have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, O’Connell said. More than 1,000 targeted killings took place during the administration of President George W. Bush, and more than 3,500 targeted killings have taken place during the administration of President Barack Obama, she said.
"There is no legal difference between targeted killing and legal assassination," O’Connell asserted.
She spoke just a few days after Obama made a case for the continued use of drone attacks against al-Qaeda operatives. In a May 23 speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, the president said America strongly prefers detaining and prosecuting terrorists, but said the fact that terrorists operate "in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth" has caused practical problems in carrying out this approach. In some places, Obama said, the local government only has a tenuous reach into the terrorist-held territory, and in other places, local governments lack the capacity or the will to take action.
In his speech, the president said drone strikes against al-Qaeda and forces attacking troops in the Afghan war theater would continue until the military transition ends there in 2014. He said drone strikes beyond Afghanistan would target only al-Qaeda and its associated forces.
"America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists — our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them," he said.
Obama also mentioned the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, to underscore the threat the cleric had posed to the United States. Al-Awlaki, the chief of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, helped oversee an attempted 2010 plot to bomb two U.S.-bound cargo planes, helped plan a failed bombing of an airliner in 2009, hosted and approved the operations of a suicide bomber, and helped tape a martyrdom video, Obama said.
"The terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," Obama said.
He said that going forward the United States would consult with partner nations, respect state sovereignty, act only against terrorists who pose an imminent threat and when there are no governments capable of addressing the threat. Additionally, he said there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.
Days after Obama’s speech, a June 9 drone strike in Yemen killed targeted militant Saleh Hassan Huraydan and several others, including his 10-year-old brother, Abdulaziz, whose death was said to have fueled anti-American sentiment in the area of the bombing, according to a news report by Adam Baron of McClatchy Foreign Staff.
Reports of civilian casualties from drone strikes prompted Bishop Richard E. Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, to write a May 17 letter to National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon, calling on the United States to counter terrorists by building peace, respecting human rights and addressing injustices.
Bishop Pates questioned recent "signature" drone attacks that reportedly classify targeted people based on their age, gender and pattern of life, rather than on evidence that they were involved in terrorism plots.
"The Administration’s policy … reportedly classifies all males of a certain age as combatants," the bishop said in his letter. "Are these policies morally defensible? They seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms."
Following her talk at St. Bernard’s, O’Connell argued that the United States should follow international laws, even if terrorists don’t.
"It has never been my view that because criminals break the law, that I should too," she said.