UN response to drone attacks

Is silence a license to kill?

When the US uses drones to bomb targets in – say – Pakistan, or Yemen, the silence in the UN Security Council is deafening. Does that mean that other nations tacitly agree with that practice?
By Christien Boomsma

US drones have killed hundreds of civilians in the last two decades. Though the goal was to strike Al Qaida members and other terrorists, hundreds of ordinary men, women and children have died in the process. People also have to fear for their lives in Afghanistan when drones appear overhead; 90 percent of deaths by bombings there are people who were not the supposed targets. Yemen? Somalia? Same story, all over again.

The term ‘targeted killings’ is often used in the media to describe these drone attacks. Drone attacks allow a nation to strike a target without endangering its own soldiers. In Pakistan over 400 such attacks have been reported since 2004; over 300 of them under Obama-rule. But the US isn’t the only nation employing these methods; Israel, China, Russia, India, and Pakistan do so as well.

And the rest of the world seems only to watch in silence – a silence that seems to condone the strikes.

What the hell?

Elisabeth Schweiger, researcher of international politics at the RUG, finds that silence intriguing, even worrisome. Here we have nations purposefully killing people in other sovereign states during peacetime. No permission asked, no law-of-the-land observed. ‘I was thinking: what the hell?’, she says. ‘It’s a huge display of power. How is it possible that nobody says anything – at least, not officially, and not in the UN Security Council?’

But then, she reconsidered. ‘How do you know that no state objects, really? It’s an absence. You cannot positively prove what it means’, she says.

How is it possible that nobody says anything?

And so she started researching something that wasn’t there. She decided to explore the political function of silence – especially in relation to drone killings. Research she’ll get her PhD for on the 20th of December. She analyzed over 900 meetings of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council between 2000 and 2016, where armed drone attacks may have been on the agenda.


What she found was troubling to say the least. Silence, she says, can have many meanings. ‘Take for example, a friend inviting everybody to a barbecue. And nobody says anything’, Schweiger argues. ‘That silence does not mean you agree to come.’ In this particular case: the friend is ignored and shut out.

Silence might be diplomatic: a quiet way to postpone decision, to increase ambiguity about what is happening, or to ignore someone else’s claims. Objectors may not have the opportunity to speak up, or when they do maybe it doesn’t register because they didn’t speak in English or simply, because nobody was listening.

However, when NGOs, activists, and politicians all cry out for a response, and keep arguing that by their silence, nations effectively condone the strikes, meaning is given to that silence that may not have been there before, Schweiger says. ‘We, researchers and media, ignore the fact that in other places – for example Human Rights Council – people have spoken out against these strikes.’

Old rules

By assuming that the silence means consent, the practice of drone strikes moves slowly but surely into customary international law – just like a powerful state like the US wants.

Back then, it was called ‘police bombing’

Today, justification for those attacks is rooted in arguments that the post 9/11 world requires new methods of defense against terrorism, and new laws to support those methods. And because the techniques – drones, operated from a distance – are new too, the old rules just don’t apply.

Schweiger doesn’t agree. ‘The whole thing very much reminds me of common practices in the 1920’s and the 1930’s in former colonies. Back then, it was called ‘police bombing’ and the “new” technology was airplanes that allowed for this very precise and humane way of killing in order to install law and order in the so-called ‘savage territories’.’

Former colonies

Even more unsettling, she says, is the fact that the 1930’s bombings took place in the same areas as drone attacks are being carried out today: Irak, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. ‘There is quite a bit of continuity’, she says. ‘But the assumption that we are now in a completely different situation sets the language game up in a particular way.’

Even opponents of targeted killings sometimes call for new laws. ‘We just assume everything is new, but we don’t talk about it explicitly.’

Failing to be critical about these assumptions will take us down a dangerous path, she says. The US continues to push for change, but changing laws that have worked well may endanger valuable principles.

A lot of scholars say it has changed already

‘Self-defense used to be permitted when you were attacked. But now, the argument is made that a state can strike preemptively when countries are “unwilling or unable to counter terrorism”. But that argument only applies to countries that are almost former colonial states. It’s quite explicitly not to be applied in Canada or the UK, for example.’


And the crazy thing is that that the term ‘targeted killing’ does not tend to be used by nations at all. It’s the media, the researchers and the lawyers that came up with the term.

‘When nations do refer to such attacks at the UN Security Council, they use terms like “assassination”, or “extrajudicial execution”’, Schweiger says. ‘We made it a big thing and maybe more of a thing than it would have been otherwise.’

And now, laws are changing – in some cases, they may have already changed. ‘A lot of scholars say it has changed already and that targeted killings like these are lawful.’


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