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US publishes its ‘playbook’ for military drones

The USA has published guidelines for its controversial use of drones, and has given a glimpse of its overall strategy. But critics say that it isn't enough.

The USA has published guidelines for its controversial use of drones, and has given a glimpse of its overall strategy. But critics say that it isn’t enough.
It took three years for the USA to make public its guidelines for military drone strikes. Critics had repeatedly called for it to do so during that time. Now the Obama administration has finally published its so-called “drone playbook,” a handbook officially known as the “Presidential Policy Guideline” for drone use – but only after the US human rights organization “American Civil Liberties Union” (ACLU) sued them over the issue.

The guidelines, which have been in existence since 2013, explain what conditions must be present for a drone strike to take place. The US uses its remote-control drones to kill terrorists, terror suspects and unfortunately ever more innocent civilians. The US says that the legal justification for its use of drones in the “war against terror” is its “right to self-defense.”

Drones are also frequently used in areas where the country is not officially at war, such as Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

The fact that these guidelines were kept from public view for three years is something that Jennifer Gibson finds unsettling. A US attorney, Gibson coordinates the work that British NGO “Reprieve” conducts on the subject of drone strikes. She sees the disclosure as a victory because it takes a step toward transparency – but says that it still isn’t enough: “We have no information whatsoever as to whether these guidelines are even followed.” She says it is generally a good idea to have rules, “but if the program is basically illegal, then rules are irrelevant.”

‘Bureaucratic solution’

Marcel Dickow, head of the security policy research team at the German Institute for International and Policy Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, thinks that the publishing of the guidelines is an “alternative bureaucratic measure” rather than a critical examination of the issue: “It is an attempt to find a bureaucratic solution to what is really an ethical and legal problem.” The handbook says nothing about whether drone strikes are in fact legitimate and legal because the government views them as legal.

By publishing the guidelines, critics say the administration is simply trying to gloss over the question of whether the program has anything to do with a process that is legal. For instance, the published guidelines state, among other things, that there must be “practical certainty” that a terrorist is in fact at the targeted site. Moreover, there must be guarantees that civilians will not be killed during the operation.

Here again, the question remains as to whether such guidelines are followed. It has long been US policy not to publish statistics on civilian deaths as a result of drone strikes. In July 2016, the government released its first-ever estimate for civilian deaths caused by drone strikes flown between the years 2009 and 2011. The administration claimed that only 116 civilians had been killed outside of war zones. Human rights groups claim that the actual number of civilians killed was much higher.

Missing information

Jennifer Gibson further criticized the report as it was not broken down according to year, country or attack. Independent organizations, she said, had no chance at all of understanding what the numbers actually represented.

In 2014, “Reprieve” published its own report on the drone war. It found that 1,147 people had been killed in order to hit 41 “targets” on President Obama’s “kill list.” The New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed as the result of drone strikes.

The published guidelines, however, leave a lot of questions unanswered about the US drone program. “A lot remains in the dark,” Marcel Dickow told DW.For tactical military reasons, it is still unclear how someone is selected as a target, and how information leading to that selection is attained.

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