Drone strikes, by the CIA or other US civilian agencies, against individuals and groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas, are the use of force by the representatives of one nation state against the civilians of another, a course of action proscribed by the UN charter. The contention here is that these US actions violate Pakistani sovereignty; that such actions are illegal under international treaties that the US has ratified; and that the defences put forward do not withstand scrutiny. Further, drone strikes are undermining the international community’s efforts to persuade Pakistanis that the fight against terrorists within their borders is a fight that must be fought for the sake of the future peace and prosperity of their country. Finally, by allowing the US to carry out its dirty work, the Pakistani government is evading the larger question as to what its role should be in apprehending those who may cause death and destruction within the borders of the state.
If these drone attacks were carried out by Iran or North Korea, they would cause international outrage and, most likely, a unanimous Security Council resolution permitting the use of force against that country. That these attacks are carried out by the CIA does not change the rule of law to which the US and all other signatories to the UN charter are subject. Two defences have been put forward (both of which are valid grounds for using force as permitted by the UN charter): that the US is acting in self-defence and that the Pakistani government has asked for US assistance to deal with a domestic situation, thus consenting to drone strikes. The most significant flaw in the first defence is that it is difficult to establish that there is a clear and present danger to US citizens or assets from individuals operating in Pakistan’s border regions at the time the drone strikes occur. Also, the strikes are pre-emptive, intended to prevent attacks on US personnel operating in the tribal areas. This does not constitute defence, but attack. No due process is carried out when suspected terrorists are killed by high-altitude drones, based on evidence rarely disclosed because of ‘operational reasons’. If the United States and Pakistan are acting in a just manner, then justice must be seen to be done.
The other defence used by America is that the Pakistani government has consented to such action. However, the Pakistani government regularly denies giving such consent and a legal defence based on consent is meaningless if the party who is supposed to have given consent denies it. Whether the Pakistani government is even competent to give such consent is a separate question altogether. What is clear is that neither defence has sufficient credibility to make the US actions indisputably legal.
Even if it can be argued that the drone strikes are legal, they remain strategically flawed. If the aim of the AfPak strategy is to gain domestic support against terrorism and extremism, using both instruments of hard and soft power, then the instrument of drone strikes is undercutting all others. The strikes allow certain extreme, but nevertheless popular, elements of Pakistani civil society to argue that their supine government has once again abrogated all responsibility in the face of American pressure. This lends further credence to views held by certain Pakistanis that America is leading a war on Muslims, on the tribal way of life and on Pakistan’s culture and traditions under the guise of a war on terrorism. These views are buttressed when the remote and clinical nature of drone attacks is sensationalised on nightly news bulletins. It is undeniable that elements of the civilian population in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan are harbouring individuals and groups whose stated aims are the downfall of the Pakistani government and the destabilisation of Pakistani society. It is equally undeniable that this civilian population is unlikely to feel any sympathy whatsoever for the political aims of Islamabad and Washington, when the only face of those aims is the business end of a Hellfire missile. Pakistanis must be convinced by their leaders and by international stakeholders (such as the US) that by harbouring terrorists they undermine their own chances for peace and prosperity. The horrendous numbers of innocents killed by terrorists in various attacks on urban centres should demonstrate this without question. But when hundreds are also killed by drone strikes, it is not surprising that the message is lost.
The sovereign integrity of the Pakistani state is part of a bigger question that Pakistanis need to answer. The method of dealing with those who conspire to commit criminal acts should be as prescribed by the laws of Pakistan and they should not be dealt with in a rough and ready form which has no place in a twenty-first century republic. When the Taliban controlled the Swat valley, they beat young girls and hanged men from lamp posts for alleged crimes, with no regard for the rules of habeas corpus or of establishing guilt by trial. When US-controlled predator drones attack suspected terrorists, they are meting out a similar form of arbitrary ‘justice’. The complicity of the Pakistani government in these actions (as they were complicit in the actions of the Taliban in Swat until forced to take action) demonstrates, in a crude fashion, to Pakistanis that their government cares nothing for its most fundamental duty: protecting their lives.
Although the Pakistani government may regularly fail to uphold the rule of law, this is no justification for the US government to carry out activities that further reinforce this failing. The American government should demonstrate to ordinary Pakistanis that they will not condone activities that are in flagrant violation of international law, and instead uphold principles which, incidentally, America keeps on insisting that Pakistan itself adhere to.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2011.
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