US drone use and why the Iran case differs

[By: Emiliano Landkroon]

Since the start of the Obama Administration there has been a steep increase in the use of unmanned aircrafts all over the world. The rationale behind this is that in a changing  world of terrorist threats, this low risk low cost instrument is necessary to obtain information vital to the security of the US.  Increasingly drones are not only used for “spy missions” but also as attack platforms, targeting individuals out of reach of traditional law enforcement mechanisms.

The use of these methods is at odds with international law. There is no legal basis for killing individuals without a trial. The counter argument to this is that the bodies of international law were drawn up in an age of state threats and are not suitable for today’s threats of network centered terrorist groups hiding in ungoverned spaces. This might be the case. Still, extra-judiciary killings are illegal.

Drone Use in the world
The number of  territories these drone flights take place in, is expending rapidly. Besides places where the US is involved in open conflict such as Iraq and Afghanistan, these places now  include Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. The governments of the first two countries have some relation with the US Army. The use of US weaponry in these countries, at least theoretically, is in support of the governments,  opposing  insurgents. The other three countries form a different category. Here the drone use is not part of large scale military operation. It might be argued that if the technical means, namely drones, would not have been available, the US ‘s options for using military force to take an individual out would have been limited to high risk special forces operations. Still, the military operations in these countries are more or less in conjunction with the central governments of these states. Who are not able, or maybe partly willing, to cope with the armed groups active on their territory. At least parts of these governments co-operate with the US Army, the targets being other than centralized state structures such as their own armies.

Iran
Recently Iran claimed a US drone was taken down in its airspace. This is different from the drone use described above. Iran is a sovereign country firmly in control of it’s territory. It is no secret that Iran and the US have a different view on the system by which states should be governed. To manage these kind of differences without war, the United Nations were formed based upon international law and international agreements. Ideologically neutral, international law is solely concerned with keeping the peace between states competing in numerous ways, economically as well as ideologically, thereby preventing large scale military conflict between states. The United Nations Security Council is the only body which can allow for military action against a state, apart from self-defense. Pre- emptive military action, like invading one’s airspace,  is exactly what the world sought to ban by establishing the security council’s mandate.

The argument of international law not being suitable for contemporary threats does not work here. By expanding the drone operations to a centralized state who is firmly in control of its territory and is not attacking any other state or harboring forces outside it’s regular military, the foundations of the worlds legal system are being heavily eroded. The targets here are not individuals, arbitrarily placing themselves outside the law (if that is possible) by using violent methods while hiding in places unreachable by law enforcement. Here the target is a member of the international community.

No argument can be brought to the table if a state is invading territory of any other state. To ignore International law, and fly spy missions over a country, is a dangerous trend. Just because the means, namely drones, are low cost and low risk, does not mean these missions are. Is it now legitimate for Iran to bomb these control centers from were drones are flown? It is a violation of international law which easily and legitimately could be answered with equal means by Iran. It could potentially become a high risk high cost operations if these actions escalate further. Respecting each others sovereignty is the corner stone of international law. It should not be taken lightly, it’s their to keep us from war!

More on Drones? Tonight: Checkpoint Cinema with Geert Jan Knoops

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