Readings: Anthony Dworkin on "Drones and Targeted Killing: Defining a European Position"

By Benjamin Wittes
Sunday, July 7, 2013, 10:38 AM

The transatlantic dialog on security matters often has a frustrating ships-passing-in-the-night quality to it. So I was interested to see this unusually constructive and valuable policy paper on drones and targeted killing emerge this week from Anthony Dworkin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Entitled "Drones and Targeted Killing: Defining a European Position," the paper responds to the near silence among European governments about drones and argues that recent American policy shifts on the subject bring the United States close to what ought to be the unified European position. Here's the introduction:

Since the United States carried out the first lethal drone strike, in Afghanistan in October 2001, drones have emerged from obscurity to become the most contentious aspect of modern warfare. Armed drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now the United States’ weapons platform of choice in its military campaign against the dispersed terrorist network of al-Qaeda. They offer an unprecedented ability to track and kill individuals with great precision, without any risk to the lives of the forces that use them, and at a much lower cost than traditional manned aircraft. But although the military appeal of remotely piloted UAVs is self-evident, they have also attracted enormous controversy and public concern. In particular, the regular use of drones to kill people who are located far from any zone of conventional hostilities strikes many people as a disturbing development that threatens to undermine the international rule of law.

Although the United Kingdom and Israel have also employed armed UAVs, the US has carried out the vast majority of drone strikes, especially those outside battlefield conditions. These attacks have been directed at suspected terrorists or members of armed groups in a series of troubled or lawless regions across a sweep of countries around the wider Middle East, encompassing Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, that are not otherwise theatres of US military operations. The US recently opened a new drone base in Niger, raising fears that armed drones might at some point be used in the Sahel or North Africa, though so far the base appears to be used only for surveillance flights. Since entering the White House in 2008, President Barack Obama has dramatically increased the use of remotely piloted aircraft to kill alleged enemies of the US. According to one estimate, his administration is responsible for almost 90 percent of the drone attacks that the US has carried out.

The US use of drones for targeted killing away from any battlefield has become the focus of increasing attention and concern in Europe. In a recent opinion poll, people in all European countries sampled were opposed to the use of drones to kill extremists outside the battlefield and a large majority of European legal scholars reject the legal justification offered for these attacks.

But European leaders and officials have responded to the US campaign of drone strikes in a muted and largely passive way. Although some European officials have made their disagreement with the legal claims underlying US policies clear in closeddoor dialogues and bilateral meetings, EU member state representatives have said almost nothing in public about US drone strikes.

The EU has so far failed to set out any vision of its own about when the use of lethal force against designated individuals is legitimate. Nor is there any indication that European states have made a serious effort to influence the development of US policy or to begin discussions on formulating common standards for the kinds of military operations that UAVs facilitate. Torn between an evident reluctance to accuse Obama of breaking international law and an unwillingness to endorse his policies, divided in part among themselves and in some cases bound by close intelligence relationships to the US, European countries have remained essentially disengaged as the era of drone warfare has dawned. Yet, as drones proliferate, such a stance seems increasingly untenable. Moreover, where in the past the difference between US and European conceptions of the fight against al-Qaeda seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to agreement on a common framework on the use of lethal force, the evolution of US policy means that there may now be a greater scope for a productive dialogue with the Obama administration on drones.

This policy brief sketches the outline of a common European position, rooted in the idea that outside zones of conventional hostilities, the deliberate taking of human life must be justified on an individual basis according to the imperative necessity of acting in order to prevent either the loss of other lives or serious harm to the life of the nation. It argues that such a position would now offer a basis for renewed engagement with the Obama administration, which has endorsed a similar standard as a matter of policy, even if its interpretation of many key terms remains unclear and its underlying legal arguments remain different. Finally, it suggests that European states will need to clarify their own understanding and reach agreement among themselves on some parts of the relevant legal framework as they refine their position and pursue discussions with the United States. None of these efforts will necessarily be easy. But unless the EU defines a position on remotely piloted aircraft and targeted killing, it risks neglecting its own interests and missing an opportunity to help shape global standards in an area that is vital to international peace and security.