What Needs to Happen Next on Drones?

March 7, 2013

President Obama should publicly disclose the secret drone memos with only the redactions truly necessary, as well as the facts about who has been killed. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The Obama administration must follow the law on lethal force (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s been a hectic 24 hours on the Obama administration’s use of drones and lethal force. As I write this, Senator Paul has accepted Attorney General Holder’s answer about drone strikes on US soil and the Senate has confirmed John Brennan—one of the architects of the drone killing program—as Director of the CIA. There’s a lot to unpack about what’s happened and where things stand now.

But I want to focus on what should happen next to make sure that no person—US citizen or anyone else—is killed outside the bounds of law with a drone or other weapons.

1) The Obama administration must follow existing law on the use of lethal force.

Senator Durbin said yesterday that the administration is interested in working with Congress to pass legislation, but that misses a key point, namely, that the law governing any state’s use of lethal force—whether with a drone or a gun or most other weapons—already exists: international human rights law and, in the exceptional circumstances where it applies, international humanitarian law as well. The US government must follow the law.

2) The never-ending “global war” must end.

As Senator Paul rightly pointed out in his epic filibuster last night, a central problem with the administration’s policy on armed drones and lethal force (and its policy on Guantanamo for that matter) is the idea that the world is a battlefield in a “global war” between the US and al Qaeda and other armed groups and individuals, and that only the law of armed conflict applies, to the exclusion of international human rights law. This “global war” theory was developed by the Bush administration and adopted by the Obama administration. It basically says to the world, we can ignore your human rights when we see fit. To change course, Congress should withdraw the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and the administration should withdraw this Office of Legal Counsel memo by John Yoo that says the executive branch cannot be constrained by the AUMF or other laws passed by Congress.

3) The US government must recognize that ALL people are equal in rights.

It’s shameful that this isn’t a no-brainer. Despite the principle of universal human rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we so often find in the debates around countering terrorism the denial to others of the fundamental rights to life and liberty considered essential by Americans. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it recently in response to the terrible “kill court” idea:

“Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.”

4) The “kill court” idea must be rejected.

If “global war” thinking hadn’t permeated so much of the way the US thinks and talks about how to deal with the threat of terrorism, the proposal by some to establish a special pre-strike “kill court”  for US citizens would immediately be rejected as a non-starter that misses the point.  A number of Senators have already rightly rejected it out of hand, but it continues to gain traction in part of the media and elsewhere. Such a court would be fundamentally unfair and mean that the US government was breaking the rules for when a state can use lethal force. What we do need is to ensure independent and impartial investigations in all cases of alleged extrajudicial executions or other unlawful killings, respect for the rights of family members of those killed, and effective redress and remedy where killings are found to have been unlawful.

5) The administration must tell the truth and Congress must conduct oversight. The public has a right to know when the Obama administration thinks it can kill. President Obama should publicly disclose the secret drone memos with only the redactions truly necessary, as well as the facts about who has been killed. Congress must play a stronger role. More hearings in Congress are needed, with survivors of drone strikes and independent experts in human rights and international law.

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