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Lethal Drones

Data from the US-based Council on Foreign Relations says the US forces had carried out more than 500 lethal drone strikes from 2001 to 2015, killing an estimated 3,674 militants, including 473 civilians. The Washington-based New America Foundation said drone strikes in Pakistan had killed between 1,700 and 2,700 people in the eight years 2004-2012.

Since 2001, the United States has been killing people with weaponized drones, most times not knowing the identity of the victims. By early 2016, at least 6,000 people had been killed by these drone strikes. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, only 4 percent of drone victims in Pakistan were identified as al-Qaida members. But vastly more than 2,000 people had been killed there by drones during these years.

Another country which suffered heavily under drone strikes is Afghanistan, the most drone bombed country in the world. Between 2001 and 2013, 1,670 drone strikes took place in the country. It was in the city of Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold, where the first strike by a weaponized drone took place in October 2001. The target, Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, was not killed on this day, but many other unknown people had been in the years since.

The US has refused to engage in a physical fight with terrorists on the battlefield, and mostly used killer drones. Drones are low-cost, lethal machines. From a purely counter-terrorism operations standpoint, drones have proven to be extremely effective in Pakistan and in Yemen. But their use comes at a price: they fan local anti-U.S. sentiment. To the extent that our use of force in somebody else’s country creates political resentment, or feeds into concerns about colonialism or American imperialism, or to the extent that it reinforces this notion that the United States is at war with Islam, it can be problematic.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, have also played a growing military role, especially in US campaigns. They provide surveillance, identify targets, and can deliver lethal force - but only if an operator gives the go ahead. But within decades technological advances could write the human operator out of the equation.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused the United States of massive civilian deaths and potentially grave violations of international law during the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. The March 2014 report by Amnesty International ("Will I Be Next?") was dedicated to the recent drone strikes in Pakistan, while the Human Rights Watch ("Between a Drone and al-Qaeda") described the situation in Yemen.

Amnesty International claimd that at least one drone strike "violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial execution" and calls to set up a trial and convict those responsible of the inhuman crimes. However, the White House dismissed all the accusations and denied any wrongdoing in its drone program. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, "US counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful and they are effective."

Meanwhile some experts believe that Obama’s administration should better distance itself from drone strikes practice instead of justifying the program. "Realistically, the policy window for reforming how the US conducts lethal counterterrorism strikes is closed in Washington," said Council on Foreign Relations fellow Micah Zenko, the author of Between Threats and War: US Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World.

The frequency of U.S. drone strikes increased from two instances during the period of 2002 and 2004 to 161 between 2009 and 2010. Growing with the numbers were the casualties of these operations. The strikes conducted between 2002 and 2004 resulted in the deaths of two high value targets and killed eleven others. The strikes between 2009 and 2010 killed seven high value targets, causing the deaths of 1,029 others.

An analysis in early 2013 by the New America Foundation estimated drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 2004 had killed up to 3,238 militants and as many as 368 civilians. At that time the military could only actually take out someone if they know 100 percent that it’s a bad guy. The CIA could take out somene on the basis that target behavior leads them to suspect that he may be a bad guy.

By January 2015 drone attacks carried out by US forces outside its stated war zones had resulted in at least 2,464 deaths since Obama took office in January 2009, at least 314 of whom were civilians, according to statistics from a UK research organization. "The covert Obama strikes, the first of which hit Pakistan just three days after his inauguration, have killed almost six times more people and twice as many civilians than those ordered in the Bush years," the Bureau of Investigation Journalism said in its report, which was published at the beginning of February 2015.

A survey of Pakistani public opinion carried out by the Pew Research Center in Spring 2014 found that 66 percent of those questioned disapproved of drone strikes, while only 3 percent approved; 74 percent of respondents said they think drones kill too many innocent people.

The US continues to be one of only a handful of countries where public opinion in favor of strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles outweighs disapproval of their use. According to research from Pew carried out in Spring 2014, more than half those polled in the US, Kenya and Israel supported drone strikes, while in 39 of 44 countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities of those questioned opposed the strategy. The Center also noted that public opposition towards drone campaigns has increased in many nations since a survey carried out the previous year.

In December 2011, in a letter to President Obama, Human Rights watch urged “greater public accountability” for CIA drone strikes. The group also urged Washington to “clarify its legal rationale for targeted killings.” in January 2012 Amnesty International urged the Obama administration to “disclose details of the legal and factual basis for the lethal use of drones in Pakistan and clarify the rules of engagement.”

In a major address at the National Defense University in Washington on May 23, 2013, President Barack Obama has given a framework for ongoing counterterrorism efforts, including the use of drones in direct lethal action against terrorists. He said that when governments cannot stop terrorism on their territory, lethal targeted action, including with drones, is required, but must be held to rigorous standards.

"America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists - our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose - our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty," he sid.

Obama called the use of drones effective, saying they have disrupted many plots, and that they are legal, noting America was attacked on September 11, 2001. But he acknowledged that the new technology raises "profound questions" and the risk of "creating new enemies."

"As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power - or risk abusing it," he said.

Countering Small Lethal Drones

A failed assassination attempt on Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro on August 4, 2018 illustrated how easy it seems to be to turn off-the-shelf drones into potentially lethal weapons. In this case, the perpetrators had loaded two drones with 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of explosives each. Then they apparently tried to fly them as close as possible to the president while he was speaking to soldiers. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said that the military had "electronically" diverted one drone from its course. The second one crashed against the wall of a building blocks away from the actual target.

Armed groups such as the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS) pioneered the use of small drones to drop hand or mortar grenades with great precision on their victims. IS fighters used improvised weapons of this kind during the Battle of Mosul in April 2017. Such types of model aircraft usually cost less than 1,000 euros (or dollars). Official Iraqi armed forces also later used the same method. The internet is full of other examples of the use of inexpensive, commercially available drones on a killing mission. In addition, there are lots of videos of gun fanatics presenting their homemade armed drones.

They can drop light grenades from a relatively great height and, being relatively quiet, are hard to detect. In addition, only experienced snipers are likely to be able to hit them. So drones are potentially a great danger.

Specialized companies such as the Kassel-based start-up company Dedrone , which cooperates with Deutsche Telekom, rely on electronic drone defense. This first of all includes a sensor system that receives electronic radio data and monitors the airspace with video cameras. The system can detect drones entering a pre-defined airspace. It identifies the flying objects via typical control commands that are transmitted to the drones by radio communication or mobile phone. It also immediately registers the drone type and construction. For example, the system can distinguish them from birds, flying kites or helicopters. The software automatically tracks the drone on a video image.

As a second step, authorities, such as police or judicial officers, can use a jamming transmitter with the aim of disabling the drone and forcing it to land. The German company H.P. Marketing und Consulting Wüst GmbH builds such systems. Wüst specializes in mobile-phone suppression systems that can prevent prisoners from using smuggled mobile phones within prison walls. Following the same principle, the system can also prevent drones near the prison walls from being controlled by a smartphone and delivering packages to prisoners, for example.

Another form of drone defense is offered by Skywall. One form of it is a shoulder-held shooting device that catapults a net toward the aircraft. Once the net is wrapped around the drone, it sails to the ground on a parachute. For particularly endangered institutions, there is even a permanently installed rotating gun turret that can be mounted on the roof of a building. It can then target automatically detected enemy drones and capture them with the flying net.

And last but not least, various armies around the world rely on birds of prey to defend themselves against drones. The French air force, for example, is training eagles to fetch and retrieve drones in flight. In the private sector, the Dutch company Guard from Above has developed animal-based drone control into a comprehensive business. The company is targeting military and police authorities around the world and works not only with eagles but with other birds of prey as well.

The Rise of the Machines

In modern warfare, drones and other unmanned vehicles are playing an increasing role, with militaries embracing a technology that they say makes war safer and more effective. But human rights campaigners fear what might be to come - fully autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention - and they want a new global treaty to stop that from happening.

Human Rights Watch jointly published a report with the Harvard Law School's International Rights Clinic arguing that within 30 years militaries could be armed with autonomous "killer robots." They said such weapons would be inconsistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk to civilians during armed conflict.

The government of the United States has been hiding the real data on casualties from deadly drone strikes in the Middle East, Somalia and Afghanistan, the co-founder of CODEPINK anti-war organization told Sputnik on 27 February 2015. "We feel that our government has been hiding the civilian casualties in the illegal nature of the use of drones and we want to expose that in our efforts to stop that," Medea Benjamin said.

The United Nations's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings presented a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in JUly 2020. Agnes Callamard's investigation focused on the legality of armed drones including one that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad's airport on January 3. It concluded the United States acted unlawfully in carrying out the attack. "This incident constituted a significant and troubling development, in terms of the identity of the target, the location of the strike, the many complex legal questions the strike rose and, of course, the implications for peace and security."

Callamard said: "Drones are not unlawful weapons. What need to be regulated is both the technological development and their usage. The use of drones ... must be lawful under three bodies of law: The law of self-defence, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law.... Thus far, courts have largely refused to provide oversight to drones' targeted killings extraterritorially, arguing that such matters are political, or relate to international relations between states and thus are non-justiciable. A blanket denial of justiciability over the extraterritorial use of lethal force cannot be reconciled with recognized principles of international law, treaties, conventions, and protocols, and violates the rights to life and to a remedy."

On 24 July 2020 the President approved an update to the policy governing the international sale, transfer, and subsequent use of U.S.-origin Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). This policy updated and replaced the previous policy announced in April 2018. With this change, the U.S. government invoked its national discretion on the implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime’s (MTCR) “strong presumption of denial” for transfers of Category I systems. The US government will treat a carefully selected subset of MTCR Category I UAS with maximum airspeed less than 800 kilometers per hour as Category II. This policy update maintained particular restraint, including a strong presumption of denial, on transfers of those UAS that present higher risk for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) delivery – such as cruise missiles, hypersonic aerial vehicles, and advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles. It did so without unduly impeding exports for growing commercial and conventional military applications of other UAS.

China was not among the 40-plus nations that announced a declaration in October 2016 to consider restrictions on the sales of UAVs to minimize the risk of them being “mis-used.” This situation has resulted in some requests for weaponized UAVs from close allies such as Jordan and the UAE being rejected by the US, while China has benefitted through a number of important sales to countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Hampered in their ability to acquire armed systems from the US and elsewhere, countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan turned to China.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2021 17:55:23 ZULU