Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Critique of ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems: The Moral and Legal Case’ by Amitai Etzioni (Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 57, 2nd Quarter 2010).

Etzioni attempts to make the case for the targeted use of unmanned aircraft systems to kill what he calls ‘abusive citizens’ – those combatants (terrorists or insurgents) who ‘abuse their civilian status’ to attack ‘truly innocent civilians’ and prevent military and security forces from performing their duties. This article is framed as a discussion of the ethics of these actions, but fails to do this on a number of counts, and rather is an attempted justification of the practice, that relies heavily upon un-argued assumptions and ideological foundations. This response highlights a number of these failings, initially dealing with broader concerns about the ethics of targeted killing, then focusing upon the specific impacts of unmanned aerial weapons systems.

The paper ‘Unmanned Aircraft systems: the moral and legal case is available to read here. (.pdf)

Etzioni’s paper makes an unsustainable essentialist distinction between ‘truly innocent civilians’ and ‘those that abuse their civilian status’. Because of their actions, this latter category have forfeited their rights and can be targeted for killing. The population surrounding these actors are also of security concern – they are ‘part time spies, lookouts and providers of services such as accommodations and medical care to the terrorists’ (70) To the extent that these civilians provide services voluntarily, Etzioni argues they should be treated the same as combat service support personnel. This is exactly the logic that Osama Bin Laden used to justify attacks on the World Trade centre and Pentagon, and is likewise faulty in any complex society or interconnected world economy. Applying this provision widely, would also draw attention to the large number of private sector contractors supporting western armies, and the defence industry that supports this. P.W. Singer, in his fundamental work on robotics in war raises questions about the ethics of situating drone pilots far from warzones, and asks if their combat activity makes them viable military targets despite being located ‘amongst a civilian population’.

Like many contemporary analysis of ‘asymmetric’ warfare, the article inverts the broader asymmetry, ignoring the vast technological and resource potential of one side, whilst focusing on the advantages the other side gains from their informal nature. A response to this is to revert the asymmetry and argue that the US military use their military status to their advantage, to use military force legally and openly, supported by substantial resources, logistic chains, technology and equipment. Etzioni argues that “the issue would be largely resolved in short order if the abusive civilians would stop their abusive practices and fight – if they must- according to the established rules of war “(67). Similarly, he states that ‘the main fault lies with the abusive citizens who refuse to separate themselves from the local population’ – arguing that the responsibility for any collateral damage lies with the combatants hidden amongst the population who refuse to line up neatly in open terrain to be obliterated by their technologically superior antagonist. The merging of combatant and civilian populations is in part a result of US military and technological dominance of the conventional battlespace. Far from being at the mercy of insurgents, the particular theatre of conflict is determined by their massive beneficial asymmetry in all others.

This argument that derogation from the laws of war on the part of one party somehow allows derogation from the laws on war by the other part (which boils down to crying ‘no fair!’ ) is a non started. The laws of war should not be thought of simply as rules to a game, but rather as ethical and moral constraints on right and proper behaviour. Etzioni works entirely within a utilitarian paradigm, where options should be selected purely due to their effectiveness is maximising US combat power.

Etzioni basically dismisses the legal question of the use of UAVs for targeted killing. His argument boils down to it being either legal, due to congressional authorisation to hunt down those responsible for 9/11 or that it does not matter, because international law is vague and can both US and International law changes and can be re-written to accommodate. (70).

The paper attempts to break down the distinction between UAS/UAVs and other technological weapons of war. In this it is somewhat successful and to a certain extent correct. Etzioni argues (but does not provide evidence) that there is no reason to believe UAS cause more collateral damage than bombing or attacks by special or regular forces (70). This may be true individually, however, Singer suggests that the low risk to military forces through the use of a drone aircraft may increase the willingness to order an attack. This may increase the cumulative number of attacks, and unless the UAS are proportionally more accurate and cause less collateral damage, a greater cumulative level of collateral damage. If UAV killing was replacing traditional methods of assassination, then this point would have more merit. The real concern is that the use of UAV is opening up more opportunities for assassination.

This is where the question of technology becomes apparent. One of Etzioni’s arguments on page 68 can be restructured as follows

1) Extra judicial killing is bad (he accepts this, and highlights that legal process is preferable, if possible, furthermore extra judicial killing should be regulated, with lots of oversight and command authority).
2) Terrorists and insurgents exist, and they hide among the population
3) Something must be done to prevent terrorist actions (security demands it)
4) Prevention requires either catching or killing
5) It is not possible to catch and prosecute these terrorists (too difficult or costly)
6) It is possible to kill them (because of the weaponised UAV technology).
7) If we caught the terrorists, we should grant them all human rights
8) But because of 5) we cannot catch them.
9) Because of 6) we can kill them
10) Therefore it is morally acceptable to use the weaponised UAV to kill the terrorist (providing it is regulated, based on intelligence, and the collateral damage is not too great).

The involvement of the technology is as follows. We wouldn’t have tried to capture them before, because it was unfeasible. A technology has been invented, developed and put into service that allows the possibility of killing targets. It is now feasible to kill at a distance in a way that was not possible before. The impossibility of capturing the target is actually morally irrelevant to killing them with remote weapons. The article make the un-argued for assumption that security requires prevention of terrorism rather than prosecuting the perpetrators after the attack.

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