Drone warfare the subject of an informative webinar hosted by a PC(USA) partner

Topics include international law, theological implications and grassroots lobbying efforts

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Junior-QBVjtUS3qyE via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Last month’s webinar “Drone War, Tech Assassinations and the Future of Conflict” provided viewers with a thoughtful examination of policies, the law and the theology around the deadly use of drones and included ways Presbyterians and others can learn more and make their beliefs known to lawmakers and the Biden administration. Watch the hour-long webinar, hosted by the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, by going here.

The Rev. Dr. Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy at the Church of the Brethren, and Holly Metcalf, director of Peace with Justice with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, convened the panel, which included:

Eviatar noted international humanitarian law — the laws of war deriving from the Geneva Conventions and other sources — governs lethal force in armed conflict. There’s also international human rights law, which is designed to regulate the use of force outside armed conflict and is permissible only to prevent an attack on human life. The United States, Eviatar said, does not recognize international human rights law outside its borders.

Are drones legal? It depends, Eviatar said. They can be used lawfully in armed conflict so long as they’re targeting only combatants or legitimate military objectives, such as the enemy’s weapons depot or supply line. Forces using drones must take precautions to protect civilians and not cause disproportionate harm, Eviatar said.

A U.S. drone strike that received plenty of publicity was the July 2022 killing of top al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the plotters behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. News sources reported that al-Zawahiri’s death was carried out by a drone attack.

Daphne Eviatar

Eviatar said the U.S. claims that the war on terror “is ongoing and global, which diverges from international law.”

“This is where the use of drones is so problematic,” Eviatar said. “It allows the United States to engage in limitless war against constantly changing armed groups anywhere in the world.”

To those who argue that how al-Qaida’s second in command was killed isn’t important, Eviatar said it matters “because the U.S. erodes the rule of globally by redefining it for its own purposes.” In addition, rather than ending conflict, drone strikes often intensify it, Eviatar said. During the first year of the Biden administration, drone strikes were paused. But over the past year, according to Eviatar, drone strikes have killed dozens of people the administration claims are al-Shabab militants in Somalia, and “we have seen in response an increase in attacks by al-Shabab,” Eviatar said.

“Successive presidents have claimed this unilateral power,” said Shiel. “CIVIC and many partners have opposed the continuation of that secretive program of strikes, often drone strikes, outside of recognized warzones.” In addition to the loss of life, “we have seen damaged infrastructure, including schools and hospitals,” Shiel said. “We’ve also seen that the U.S. has for the most part failed to prevent these civilian harms and to meaningfully respond with rigorous investigations” and by beginning to make amends, including offering condolence payments.

Annie Shiel

While the Department of Defense has developed a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, the plan doesn’t apply to drone strikes by the Central Intelligence Agency, Shiel noted. “Civilians harmed by CIA strikes rarely if ever receive any kind of acknowledgement or accountability for their harm,” Shiel said, “because of the secretive nature of those strikes.”

Muchina said that theology and policy and legal issues around drone strikes overlap with each other. Muchina cited Luke 9:51-56, where Jesus rebukes James and John for asking whether they can command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans who wouldn’t receive Jesus because Jesus’ face was set for Jerusalem. “Did Jesus rebuke drone usage? I tend to believe so,” Muchina said. “I can imagine how stunned the disciples were by this rebuke, especially since they thought it was justified, and may of us think war is justified.”


Dr. Pauline Muchina

“As a womanist theologian, I believe that the use of drones jeopardizes critical moral values in our society that are supposed to be guiding our lives, values like love, empathy, dignity, compassion and justice,” Muchina said. “Should we as people of faith remain silent as our brothers and sisters live in constant fear of when the next killer drone will strike? Or do we say to the government, ‘Not in our name.’”

“When you target people as young as 14 years old,” Muchina said, “you are violating international law, humanity and the law from God.”

Panelists then asked questions of one another.

“I’m not saying let’s not protect ourselves,” Muchina said in response to a question. “But let’s not be too quick to judge and assassinate people around the world the way we are now.”

On how to hold the U.S. accountable on human rights issues, Eviatar said the Biden administration “to its credit” is “looking more toward [following] international law.” That will create “moral and legal norms that make it harder for the next president to come in and reverse them.”

How, Shiel was asked, can people work to make the United States more transparent about its actions?

First and foremost, Shiel responded, transparency is owed to the people of the United States “and to all those affected by these strikes.”

“We deserve to have information about where the U.S. is using force,” Shiel said, adding it’s “important to have conversations about whether investing in drones has made us safer.”

“We know harm begets harm,” Shiel said. “When we harm civilians, we create really deep grievances in society that continue to foment conflict and continued cycles of violence.”

Shiel said members of Congress rarely hear from their constituents on drone warfare. “It makes a big difference when they hear from people,” Shiel said. “Voicing concerns actually has quite a bit of impact.”

Muchina agreed with that assessment.

“The public will influence this more than any legal body can,” Muchina said. “U.S. citizens have to say, ‘No! Not in our name.’”

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