Drones not a violation of our sovereignty

US cannot conduct a surgical-strike operation without transparency, accountability and fact-finding investigations.

Neha Ansari July 23, 2013
The writer, a Fulbright Scholar and recent graduate of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, US, was previously a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune

If any proof was needed of Pakistan’s consent to drone strikes, it clearly emerges in the Abbottabad Commission report. Nevertheless, Pakistanis still falter at the possibility of their own country allowing the Predator to hover and the Hellfire missiles to destroy. “There were no written agreements [on the drone attacks]. There was a political understanding,” said the report on page 201. This statement validates Pakistan’s — not so tacit — consent to drone strikes. The implications of such evidence are that our country’s argument on drone strikes is based on a false premise: “a violation of our sovereignty”.

We need to understand that with consent professedly given by the host country, i.e., Pakistan, the principle of sovereignty does not apply. If you allow your air space to be used by a foreign country, it is not a breach of state sovereignty. In Pakistan’s case vis-a-vis drone strikes, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict, is applicable because of this very consent, not International Human Rights Law. IHL is the body of international law that attempts to humanise war and armed conflict; hence, an armed conflict should be under way for this regime to be applicable. And this law, like it or not, allows for absolute killing.

My argument on drone strikes in Pakistan is two-pronged. First, the use of drones in this country is legal under IHL because we have allowed another state to use force in our sovereign territory and there is a state of ongoing conflict. I would also argue that force is being used against a ‘shared enemy’. For example, the first reported drone strike in South Waziristan in June 2004 killed Nek Muhammad Wazir, a Pashtun militant, who, according to some, allegedly posed a greater threat to Pakistan.

Second, the ways in which surgical strikes are conducted — not the strikes themselves — violate the law. The Predator surgical strikes do not comply with both the cardinal IHL principle of discrimination as well as that of proportionality, which is explained in the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions 1948. Discrimination requires the state using force to distinguish between the military and civilians. Meanwhile, the proportionality requirement limits the permissible level of force based on the threat posed. The proportionality principle also necessitates that targeting decisions in military operations avoid civilian causalities that are excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

The status quo on drone strikes cannot be acceptable. The United States cannot conduct a surgical-strike operation without transparency, accountability and fact-finding investigations. Meanwhile, Pakistan cannot continue to turn its face away from the civilian casualties and the resultant fallout. These surgical strikes are driving terrorists into the country’s cities, particularly Karachi. The unabated and unreported civilian casualties are also breeding more terrorists and increasing the number of sympathisers. Ms Riffat, a teacher at a government school on the outskirts of Karachi, found out that one of her students was killed in a drone strike when he went to visit his village in North Waziristan. She later learned that the boy’s family, dejected with the heart-wrenching incident, took out all his brothers and cousins, who studied in the same school, from the primary education system and sent them to a madrassa. This is one of the many unaccounted for eventualities in the drone saga that the Pakistani state cannot ignore anymore. Pakistan needs to stop denying that it is not on board with the drone programme. It is an open secret that the country’s leadership has given its full assent to the drone programme.

Both Pakistan and the US need to own the drone campaign and make amends. For Pakistan, the task is more challenging; introspection is never easy, especially for a country with many skeletons in the closet. Nonetheless, Pakistan needs a reset button on its stance on the drone programme.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Manoj Joshi India | 10 years ago | Reply

The army of Pakistan faces the direct threat from the Taliban. The situation no doubt is extremely critical as there is every chance of civilian casualty that will bring an unwarranted ill fame to the army as an institution. The skill of leadership of the Pakistan army is now at test and the real performance and efficiency as well as discipline of the institution is being put through this critical examination which the army has to pass and qualify thus successfully complete their military operation in Waziristan. Civilian casualties are rather unavoidable in that hostile terrain despite all the care and caution taken. Besides the dichotomy being faced by the Pakistan army is that they are fighting this war on their own land against their own people. This is no way a 'fox land' that they have to capture or fight against. The second most important aspect is the infiltration within the Pakistan army of elements who are either sympathetic to the Taliban or support them in a covert manner because of which in all probability the information with regard to the planned army moves in the area are known to the Taliban who are able to take remedial steps in accordance. The third factor is related to the international pressure on Pakistan from the US and the pressures from within which also are responsible in creating obstacles for the Pakistan army as there is a considerable logistic support that the Pakistan army is getting from the US at this point of time. These factors or aspects are playing the role and making military operations not very easy to conduct within Waziristan. The drone attacks are no doubt an effective surgical operation against terrorism nevertheless their is a hurt caused to Pakistani psyche as this is reflecting on the mettle of the defence forces of Pakistan. As a nation Pakistan has suffered for certain political and strategic moves of the past which perhaps were a result of the then ongoing power struggle due to the Cold War. The political conditions of Pakistan during the Cold War period were perhaps compelling for the nation to have joined the CENTO. Thus a nation became a tool in the hands of the neo-imperialist powers that has been used by those forces to realise their political and strategic ends. Critics no doubt may argue that Pakistan is reaping the harvest they have sown in the past which is not wrong but, this is not the appropriate time to unnecessarily rake up such issues. Discretion is essential at this point of time.

numbersnumbers | 10 years ago | Reply

@Sana Soleri: Out of curiosity, do the militant foreign fighters in the FATA region violate Pakistan's "Sovereignty" or were they all issued "tourist" visas???

Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ