When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?
The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.
There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.
But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.
The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.
Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.
Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.
Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.
Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?
In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.
Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.
Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.
The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.
At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.
As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.
These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.
Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.
That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.
All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.
Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.
Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.
But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.
It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”
It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”
As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.
Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.
To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.
Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing allegations of victim-blaming after attributing a rise in rape cases to how women dress.
“Not every man has willpower. If you keep on increasing vulgarity, it will have consequences,” Khan said during a television interview on Monday, per the New York Times, prompting widespread backlash. The Pakistani leader said women should adhere to “purdah,” referring to a concept involving women wearing modest or concealing clothing and the segregation of the sexes.
Human rights groups and even Khan’s first wife have condemned his remarks.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said Khan’s comments showed “a baffling ignorance of where, why and how rape occurs, but it also lays the blame on rape survivors,” per Reuters.
Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress and Khan’s ex-wife, took to Twitter to decry his comments.
“I remember years ago being in Saudi Arabia and an elderly woman in an abaya & niqab was lamenting the fact that when she went out she was followed & harassed by young men. The only way to get rid of them was to take her face covering OFF. The problem is not how women dress!” Goldsmith tweeted.
In a separate tweet, Goldsmith said, “I’m hoping this is a misquote/ mistranslation. The Imran I knew used to say, “Put a veil on the man’s eyes not on the woman.”
Khan’s office released a statement that said his comments had been taken out of context and misinterpreted. “The Prime Minister said that our strict anti-rape laws alone will not be able to stem the rise in sex crime. The whole society has to fight it together including lowering exposure to temptation,” the statement said.
In 2020, thousands of Pakistanis flooded the streets after a police official in Lahore said a woman who was raped on a deserted highway was partly to blame. The Pakistani government responded to the outcry by passing a measure that said men convicted of rape could be sentenced to chemical castration. Still, rape convictions in Pakistan are rare. Fewer than 3% of sexual assault or rape cases in Pakistan result in a conviction, per the Karachi-based non-governmental organization War Against Rape.
Human rights groups have said that rape is an underreported crime in Pakistan largely because women who come forward are ostracized and treated like criminals.
Human Rights Watch says “violence against women and girls-including rape, so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage-remains a serious problem” in Pakistan, adding that “Pakistani activists estimate that there are about 1,000 ‘honor’ killings every year.”
Pakistan on Saturday approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for emergency use, according to multiple reports.
Asad Umar, a government official working on the vaccine rollout, said the vaccine will first be given to people older than 65 and healthcare workers, according to The Associated Press.
Speaking on Saturday, Umar said provinces and the private sector were free to import the drug, subject to the approval of the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP), according to Dawn, a local newspaper.
“From day 1, the [National Command and Operation Centre] has adopted the policy that the federal government shall not have the monopoly to import anti-coronavirus vaccines,” said Umar, according to Dawn.
Pakistan late last year signed an agreement with China’s National Pharmaceutical Group, known as Sinopharm, for more than a million doses of its vaccine, according to The Express Tribune. Sinopharm’s drug has not yet been approved by DRAP.
The country may also import “tens of millions” of doses of a vaccine made by China’s CanSinoBio, Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told the newspaper.
Pakistan has had 519,291 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 10,951 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In the last week, about 307 people died following COVID-19 infections, down from the country’s record high of 861 weekly deaths in mid-June, according to Johns Hopkins.
A second wave of coronavirus cases hit Pakistan in November and December, according to data shared on Twitter by Umar earlier this month.
Umar urged people in Pakistan to follow safety regulations in an effort to flatten the curve.
Last week, he said: “Data clearly shows that covid health consequences are strongly correlated with our decisions & personal choices. Hence it’s important that we all take responsibility & take precautions. If we do the right things we shall inshallah continue to safeguard lives & livelihoods.”
Neighboring India began the world’s largest vaccination drive on Saturday, with the goal of inoculating 300,000 people in one day. India approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which goes under the name Covishield in the country, for emergency use in early January.
Most of the world’s soccer balls – nearly 70% – are made in one small city in Northern Pakistan.
Soccer ball production is a major source of income in the city of Sialkot, with at least 1,000 soccer ball factories employing nearly 60,000 people there.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, many closed down.
“The demand for footballs has dropped drastically due to the coronavirus because playgrounds are closed, there are no matches, people don’t have the space to play it. So buyers have cut demand by 70%,” said Waseem Shahbaz Lodhi, managing partner of Bola Gema Pakistan, a factory that produces 160,000 balls per month.
At Bola Gema Pakistan’s factory, workers are responsible for all aspects of a soccer ball’s creation, from cutting and molding sheets of hot rubber to patching together the 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons that comprise a ball’s exterior.
“The industry has been around for nearly a century, and that’s why our perfection of skills is amazing,” Lodhi said.
FIFA-approved balls like the ones Bola Gema makes can sell for over $100 in the US – more than the monthly wages of some workers who make them.
Ahead of the last World Cup in 2018, Pakistan exported more than 37 million soccer balls across the globe. And Bola Gema has already begun manufacturing balls ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
While business is down due to a stall in team sports during the pandemic, Lodhi has been looking out for his workers.
“We’ve been home for two to three months, but the owners of Bola Gema still paid us. So that’s why we weren’t worried,” Saeeda Bibi, a Bola Gema factory worker, said.
The company also created a store where workers can buy household products at a discounted price.
The shop is made possible through a 10% premium on soccer balls sold to foreign buyers through the Fair Trade Association, Lodhi said. That 10% is taken back to provide lower prices at the store for Bola Gema employees.
As the pandemic drags on, Lodhi hopes that the soccer ball industry will bounce back.
“We are getting new inquiries, and we are hoping that despite the corona pandemic, we will start getting orders,” he said. “And the production that fell by 70% will gradually start getting better, and we won’t be forced to close the factory.”