What I learned in international law: US drone strikes

Here is another student guest post from the international law class.  As stated in a previous prompt, they were asked to find a recent news story and tie it to something that they have learned this semester.  This student chose to write on international humanitarian law (IHL) and US drone strikes.

Rod Nordland’s New York Times Article: “U.S. General Apologizes After Afghan Drone Strike”

A Discussion of the Article and Relevant U.S. International Law Violations

In the New York Times article “U.S. General Apologizes After Afghan Drone Strike” by Rod Nordland, a recent drone strike gone-wrong and the ensuing political developments between the United States and Afghanistan regarding a newly drafted, long-term security deal are discussed. Although Nordland’s article is well written, at times he assumes the audience already has a grasp on the important details behind the news story, and these details happen to pertain to areas of international law that were covered in class. Therefore, in order to build a solid understanding of the material presented in this article, it is vital for these details to be described properly and placed into the correct context. In this paper, I will address the following: the specific failed drone strike about which the article is based; how this drone strike and countless others just like it violate well-established international laws that were not discussed in the story; and how interpreting the U.S.’s violations of these international laws might help the reader to more deeply appreciate the complex relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, a relationship that Mr. Nordland assumes the reader already understands.

Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, has publicly voiced his resentment of the U.S. because of one of its many recent U.S. drone strikes, which resulted in civilian casualties. The strike missed its intended target, a prominent insurgent commander, who was traveling on a motorcycle. Instead, the missile hit a group of innocent civilians, killing a child and injuring two women in the process (Nordland). The article goes on to explain that the American military commander in charge of the operation called President Karzai to apologize for this incident, which occurred at an extremely delicate moment because of the current talks over a long-term security agreement.

Before this incident occurred, Mr. Karzai had publicly stated that, “he would cancel the security agreement completely if there was even one more raid that killed civilians” (Nordland). Due to the fact that such an incident occurred so shortly after this statement was made, and because the incident is being considered a “raid” by the Afghan government, Mr. Karzai has decided that the security agreement will not be signed as long these acts continue (Nordland). The President has even gone as far as adding “a series of new conditions” to the potential agreement, and further claims that he will sign nothing until the U.S. meets those conditions. This decision was made despite strong pressure being exerted by the U.S. for Mr. Karzai to promptly sign the agreement, not to mention that the loya jirga, or grand council, has already approved the security agreement and is also calling on the President to sign it as soon as possible (Nordland).

It is obvious that Mr. Karzai is under heavy pressure by all parties involved, including his own, to sign the agreement as soon as possible. Yet, he refuses unless his set of new conditions are met. So why is Mr. Karzai, thus far, holding so strong to his personal convictions and subsequent decision? Although Mr. Nordland does not specifically answer this question, his article would leave one to assume that the President’s decision is solely based upon his newfound hostility toward the U.S. military due to its reckless drone strike in this specific instance, which, keep in mind, caused an almost negligible amount of civilian casualties if one were looking at this strike’s casualties in the context of the entire war’s casualties.

Never does Nordland even mention what must be a key aspect of Mr. Karzai’s decision-making process, one of much greater significance: that U.S. actions in the Afghanistan, are, in many specific instances, in violation of many different binding bodies of international law.

Mr. Karzai understands that the U.S.’s repeated killing of innocent civilians through repeated drone strikes, whether these killings are purposefully or accidental, violates each victim’s right to life, as promised to them through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“International Covenant”).

Additionally, Mr. Karzai knows that the U.S.’s conducting military operations on foreign soil, without permission/approval of the country involved, is often considered a “threat…against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” and thus, a clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations (“Charter of”). He rightfully believes that even though the U.S. is conducting military operations with the support of his government, the U.S. still must obey the wishes of his government, otherwise Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and political independence is placed in severe jeopardy.

Finally, Mr. Karzai remembers Protocol II of the Geneva Convention, which declares that no civilian shall ever be the object of an attack, whether it is an external or internal conflict (“Protocol Additional”). President Karzai remembers and honors the thousands of Afghanis that have been killed by drone strikes over the years, and he remembers the U.S.’s repeated use of a rather pathetic excuse: the civilian casualties are simply ‘collateral damage’ and we are sorry. But hey, at least we got the bad guys too!

Mr. Karzai has seen, first-hand, these frequent U.S. violations of international law, as they have all occurred in his own country. If the author of this story had adequately explained each of the U.S.’s major international law violations in the region, it would have been much more difficult for the reader to pin President Karzai as an irrational and merciless leader who has no tolerance for a few mistakes by the U.S. military. However, now that the U.S.’s common, yet highly illegal drone striking routine has been exposed for the reader to comprehend, what was once President Karzai’s “hardline stance” when it comes to the creation of this new, long-term security agreement suddenly becomes much more reasonable. Like any good leader, Mr. Karzai simply wants his people to be secure. Security is something that many of the people of Afghanistan have never truly experienced, and there is no doubt that U.S. drone strikes have only perpetuated this lack of security. Only by exploring the treaties and conventions mentioned above will the reader fully understand Mr. Karzai’s frustration with the United States for its repeated violations of such international law, and with the international community for doing nothing to keep the United States in check.



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