Panelists debate legality of American drone strikes

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John Carberry
Lund Debate participants
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Michael Lewis, right, and Mary Ellen O'Connell debate the legality of U.S. drone warfare Nov. 21.

The first C.I.A.-operated drone strike related to the war on terror occurred in Yemen in 2002 and killed six individuals, one of whom was an American citizen. And American drone strikes since Sept. 11, 2001, have violated the United Nations Charter, said Mary Ellen O’Connell of the University of Notre Dame Nov. 21 in the Lund Critical Debate, “Deaths by Drone: Are They Illegal.”

“Drone strikes … are being used as a remedy for U.S. insecurity about future terrorist attacks,” she continued. “The U.S. is pursuing a war paradigm, which takes killing as a given, and not a peace paradigm, which takes the protection of life as the most fundamental duty of the state.”

Michael Lewis, a professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law, disagreed. He said drones effectively minimize civilian casualties while providing military and legal personnel “one last look before a trigger is pulled.” This plays a role in determining the legality and effectiveness of a potential strike, he said.

The drone program’s overall secrecy and disagreement over who counts as a civilian have caused uncertainty in the number of casualties as well as hindering productive dialogue, said moderator Matthew Evangelista, Cornell professor of government, who introduced the topic. “The controversy is mainly over a practice that has become known as targeted killing … which does not occur in a recognized armed conflict. The people targeted are typically not participating in the kind of armed conflict for which the laws of war were developed.”

Jens D. Ohlin, Cornell professor of law, served as the debate’s discussant. He pointed out that O’Connell and Lewis presented different understandings of jus ad bellum – the right to wage war. Much of their disagreement derived from differences in defining what constitutes a legally recognized armed conflict that would allow use of weapons such as drones.

Lewis justified the legality of the American drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan. He said a civil war was already underway in Yemen, while Pakistan was unwilling and unable to contain al Qaeda from crossing the border into Afghanistan, thus legally justifying American action. Lewis did not comment on the case of Somalia, where, O’Connell argued, U.S. drone strikes are illegal because the United States is not party to a recognized armed conflict.

Both speakers fielded questions from the audience. Lewis said he doubted internal law enforcement efforts in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia would be capable of neutralizing domestic threats in the foreseeable future. Thus, he said, the responsibility falls on the United States to dislodge the insurgents who seek “sanctuary in ungoverned areas.”

O’Connell concluded that American drone attacks are counterproductive and could ultimately regularize mass violence, adding that the United States needs to lead by resolving international conflicts without violence.

The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies sponsored the debate.

Harrison Lewis ’14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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