It’s possible that targeted killings will be the only policy of president Barack Obama that the new resident of the White House will be eager to perpetuate.
Last May, President Donald Trump stated, “I have to do what’s right … as far as drones are concerned … to take out terrorists”. He kept his word: US drones apparently killed three alleged Al Qaeda members in Yemen in late January.
Targeted killing – the killing of specific individuals usually performed by drones – is a globally expanding practice.
It blends police objectives with military operations. Targets are considered to be enemy combatants. But if they were to be apprehended in the country where they plan to perpetrate their attack they would not be killed, they would be arrested and put on trial.
Targeted killings are a both a domestic issue and an international one and they combine resources gathered from intelligence means and military power. They are one of the constitutive elements of the preventive use of force framework that emerged in the early 2000s.
Killing by drone
Targeted killings were introduced by Israel just after the start of the second intifada in 2000; the idea came from the Israeli internal security agency, Shin Bet. Israel is unapologetic about these assassinations and ample information about the killings is available.
Back then, Israel was criticised severely by the US, but that was two weeks before 9/11. Once the US was hit, the Bush administration started its own global program of targeted killings in the context of what became the doctrinal setting of the so-called “war on terror”.
The global war on terror has often stirred criticism in France, both in civil society circles and in government. This should not come as a surprise since it is hard, if not impossible, to convince third parties that US law should authorise the violation of state sovereignty and that such unilateralism apply to the use of force.
Today, the UK has a programme of its own and France is also on board. French President François Hollande has set a “kill list” of jihadists who, his advisors believe, are a threat to French citizens. France, we knew, killed a jihadist in October 2015, but we now have information that this is not an isolated case.
What we see today is the versatility of democracies and their selfishness. When leaders believe national security is not at risk, a discourse inspired by human rights prevails. When leaders believe there are security problems, especially if the lives of their civilians are at risk on their own soil, rights are not a primary concern. When abiding by principles is costly, they are put aside.
This is the old “balancing” debate: the security versus rights dilemma. In theory it is a sophisticated one, the practice is less nuanced.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s response to journalists who asked him if those operations were legal was telling. With a mix of candour, foolishness and arrogance, he responded that they ought not to ask questions that “are making things too complicated”.
A global problem
So far, the US program of targeted elimination is the most problematic. It can be argued that Israel is in conflict with Palestine and therefore the use of force is permissible in certain areas of the Palestinian territories, as, in times of war and during conflicts, the killing of combatant by other combatants is legal and legitimate. This does not mean that Israeli targeted killings program is immune to criticism and that what has become a routine is justifiable.
But the US program authorises the US to kill its targets in countries it is not at war with or in the absence of conflict, in some cases these are even allies, such as Pakistan where, for obvious reasons, they create great resentment.
The area covered by the US program is huge and the number of operations very significant. Unlike in the case of Israel, no official data is available (especially concerning the number of civilians who die because of the attacks). The targets’ selection is also problematic, especially in the case of “signature strikes” – those targets that are selected on a statistical basis.
The decision to strike depends on the signals that individuals display and which make them look suspicious. A young male dressed in clothes that cover his face, and taking a stroll at night in a Pakistani area where rebels are known to live has good reasons to fear for his security.
As the US will pursue if not expand its targeted killings policy, we need to be aware of the problems inherent to this practice. They are legally dubious. They create political tensions between those who use them and those states where they are operating.
Finally, their efficacy has not been proven. Even, in the Israeli case, some, very convincingly, challenge that targeted killings are the cause of the decrease of suicide bombers.
Who’s next, what’s next?
Other liberal countries are jumping on the bandwagon, such as the US’s gentle neighbour Canada. But the next step is even more intriguing.
For now, we see a clear North-South divide: Western states are shooting while the Middle East, Africa and Muslim areas are taking the bullets. But this might change.
What will happen when Russia, Turkey and China launch their own operations? This will mark the end of Western exceptionalism.
In Israel and in the US, democracies are engaged in vivid legal debates on the legality of the operations they carry out.
The outcome of this endeavour has been to try to define domestic laws that would allow the use of force at the international level, which is already contrary to the spirit of international law (if not its content). At the international level, we saw some attempts to address this issue at the UN, but, so far, the results of these efforts have been mitigated.
What happens when non-democracies where human rights and international humanitarian laws, to say the least, are not a priority, use drones or other devices to perform targeted killings? It is probable that because they care less and have fewer resources and expertise than the US, their operations will be less precise?
Is their power likely to be contained? It is unlikely that the US and Western states will be able to push in this direction. After all, they initiated the process. In this regard, the recent confrontation over Syria between US ambassador Samantha Power and the Russian representative Vitaly Churkin at the UN in December 2016 is very telling about the general situation we are in.
Power repeatedly and emphatically asked the Russians if they felt no “shame”, because of the heavy bombings they carried out in order to rescue and resuscitate the Assad regime. In return, Churkin mocked Power by bluntly emphasising that she built “her statement as if she was Mother Teresa”. He told her to remember of her “own country track record”, instead of trying to display such unwarranted “moral supremacy”.
We have to envisage the future consequences of the expansion of targeted killings as a norm and be aware of the dangers of their spread. It will be more difficult for those who want to occupy the moral high ground or simply to limit the use of force to denounce the absurdity of this situation. Western elites in government and outside, by that time, will have already made too many concessions with the principles they want others to uphold.