The United States currently employs armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, in targeted killing military operations. The flight path of UAVs is either controlled autonomously by computer systems in the drone itself, via the remote control of a navigator, or by a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. Here, two professors debate the question: Is the use of drones for targeted killings ethical?

The right to life in war and peace: A legal and moral critique of targeted killing

Since 2002, the United States has conducted a relentless campaign of killing persons using military force outside of zones of armed conflict. President Obama has since increased the pace of killing dramatically and has expanded the authorized targets to persons or groups, including Americans, acting suspiciously in certain countries. To distinguish such killing from assassination, the term “targeted killing” is often used.

At the time of writing, as many as 4,400 people have been killed by the United States intentionally or unintentionally in targeted killing operations, many of which operations are executed by armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
How should we assess this killing and the growing capacity and interest in killing far from armed conflict zones? Neither law nor morality condones killing people suspected of involvement in terrorism. It may seem to the president that using force in such a situation is justified morally despite the law but such an assumption ignores the fact that the law restricting the use of force is derived from fundamental moral and ethical considerations.

Contemporary rules on the use of force may be traced to the Just War Theories of Saints Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine drew on Aristotle and Cicero for the conception that peace is the normal state and that violence is justified only to restore peace. Moral philosophers continue to teach that the taking of human life may only be justified to protect human life. In other words, the exceptional right to resort to force rests squarely on a justification of necessity. Law and philosophy guide us in understanding what necessity means in the context of justifiable force.

To support these statements, I need to begin with the fundamental, legal and moral principle of the human right to life. This is a fundamental, if not the most fundamental legal and moral principle. It is reflected in the Decalogue in the commandment not to kill and throughout the Gospel in Christ’s teaching to love one’s neighbor, to turn the other cheek, to put away swords, and to seek peace.

In current international law, the right to life is affirmed in all human rights treaties, including, most importantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his right to life.”

The affirmative right to life is where we begin. The justification for any intentional taking of life is found in exceptions to the basic right. And, as is appropriate, the justifications are narrow.

In peace, a state may only take a human life when, according to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of McCann v United Kingdom, it is: “absolutely necessary in the defence of persons from unlawful violence.”

Only when the violence amounted to an armed conflict could the use of missiles, bombs, tanks, grenades, and the like become permissible. When excessive use of force outside of armed conflict zones is significant it also violates jus cogens norms. Widespread killing not justified by absolute necessity in peace or reasonable necessity in armed conflict would qualify as murder according to jus cogens norms. This is the type of killing associated with death squads, but could also be the taking of 4,400 lives over ten years far from armed conflict zones.

Within the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no room for expanding the justifications to kill. My Church has supported with passion and eloquence the establishment of a peace order through international law and institutions against war. In 1963, Pope John XXIII issued his powerful encyclical, Pacem in Terris, in which he extolled the United Nations and its Charter rules against resort to military force. In 1965, Pope Paul VI pleaded at the United Nations for “[n]o more war, war never again! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of people and of all mankind.”

The moral and religious case against expanding the right to kill seems unassailable, but if it were, would counter-terrorism experts be able to make the case that such killing is effective in preventing terrorism? In law, ethics and effectiveness are integral in assessing legality. A large number of dead is not, of course, a criterion of success. Both President Bush and Obama have indicated that this killing is being carried out to suppress terrorism. For this goal, however, independent counter-terrorism experts provide evidence that killing of this kind does not have longer-term positive effects.

Words – “propaganda” in the terminology of the major public – have led to the popularity in the United States of killing terrorism suspects. This is sad to acknowledge given President Obama’s public commitment to Christianity, his years as a law professor, his elite education, his experience in international relations, and, of course, his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. But it is the reality.

Mary Ellen O’Connell is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law and Research Professor of International Dispute Resolution at the University of Notre Dame. The statements above are excerpts from an address given to the Institute for Theology and Peace. They are reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Two cheers for drones: The ethics of UAVs in the war on terror

I have been critical of many facets of President Obama’s national security policy during his first term. But on the question of the use of drones as the weapon of choice against the international terrorist organization al Qaeda, I am happy to offer, if not a full throated endorsement of the Administration’s strategy, at least two hearty cheers for it on ethical grounds.

In the Catholic tradition, the use of military force is ethical if it meets the criteria of both Jus ad Bellum (going to war for the right reasons) and Jus in Bello (once in war, fighting it “justly”). The Obama Administration’s drone war against al Qaeda satisfies both criteria in my view.

Given that al Qaeda declared war on us on February 1998 and launched a series of escalating attacks on our embassies, warships, and finally our territory itself on September 11, 2001, our military response fits the requirements of a just decision to go to war, which include that it be conducted by the proper authority (the U.S. government), with right intention (to destroy al Qaeda), that it have a reasonable chance of success, that the end be proportional to means employed, and that it be the last resort.

Indeed, on these last three counts, Obama’s drone war has been ethically superior to the Bush Administration’s strategy of waging a global war on terror (a decidedly indiscriminate target) by toppling unfriendly regimes in the Middle East (whether they were in cahoots with al Qaeda or not) and trying to plant democracy there as an antidote to terrorism (hardly a goal we can expect to achieve).

As events in Iraq and Afghanistan have confirmed, this approach never had much chance of success, the huge loss of civilian lives in both countries (110,000 to 120,000 in Iraq, about 14,000 of which were attributable to coalition forces; and 13,000 in Afghanistan, over 3,000 of which were caused by coalition forces) made the objective in each case well out of proportion of the costs, and was clearly never the last resort, especially in the war of choice in Iraq.

In terms of conducting the war justly through discriminate and proportional operations, Obama’s approach has also been more in accord with the Tradition’s requirements.  Indeed, armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are among the most discriminate of all weapons.  By arming the Predator drone – a highly discriminate surveillance UAV — with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, which are both highly accurate (they are so accurate that they reportedly can be guided into a building through a window), and have a relatively small (20lb. high explosive) warhead, the system facilitates proportional counter-terrorism operations as much as is possible in a shooting war.

Consider the alternatives:  the Air Force and Navy also have highly accurate laser-guided bombs that they have used to target al Qaeda figures, but the smallest of these has over 10 times the explosive power of the Hellfire Missile, raising significant chances for collateral damage and the harming of non-combatants.

The United States also has very capable Special Operations Forces, such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six which can operate surgically against terrorist figures. But the failed Ranger/Delta operation in Mogadishu in 1993 makes clear that such operations can easily go very wrong, not only in terms of friendly casualties (19 U.S. soldiers were killed and almost 100 were wounded) but also in terms of collateral damage (estimates of Somali casualty figures range from 1,500 to 3,000 dead and wounded, many of whom were noncombatants).

To be sure, whether through negligence or bad intelligence, even the most discriminate weapons systems may injure or kill noncombatants.  But relative to almost every other military option, drones are by far the most discriminant weapons we have in our arsenal to use against al Qaeda.

Also, the ease and apparent success of drone strikes could lull us into the false belief that the war against al Qaeda is one we can kill our way out of.  A better way to think about it is to treat it like a global counter-insurgency operation in which we have to conduct kinetic operations against a small number of incorrigible terrorists while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the rest of the Islamic world.

If we conclude, as I do, that the war against al Qaeda is just, and we keep in mind the real limitations of drone warfare, then they clearly represent the most just (and effective) means of waging war because they have achieved more against al Qaeda with fewer civilian casualties than any other weapon in our arsenal.

Michael C. Desch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and a Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study at University of Notre Dame.