Terrorism and Human Rights (39): Targeted Killing and Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory states that democracies are less likely to engage in war with each other, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the fact that in a democracy, the people vote, and the people are also those who shoulder the cost of war. In a regime in which the people can influence the decision to go to war, such a decision will only be taken very reluctantly. Conversely, a regime that doesn’t need to listen to its people can easily impose the cost of war.

What’s the link with targeted killings of terrorists? Let’s limit the discussion to drone attacks in the context of a war. Killing terrorists in any other context amounts to extrajudicial execution, since those terrorists are criminals rather than combatants and therefore have a right to a trial (unless killing them is the only way to stop an imminent attack). In the context of a war, targeted killings carried out by unmanned drone aircraft are supposed to have certain advantages compared to “normal” military engagement with the enemy. Two of those advantages are that

  • drone attacks are said to be more precise and hence less likely to result in civilian casualties, and that
  • you can avoid putting your own soldiers in harms way.

The supposed precision of drone attacks is contested, since it’s often difficult to judge from thousands of miles away whether the target is real, whether the informants on the ground are reliable and whether there’s no risk to innocent bystanders. There have been reports of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks, although the true extent of this problem is difficult to measure since there’s no public information on those attacks.

In some cases, troops on the ground may be better able to judge these things. It’s also not commonly accepted that it’s ethical to focus on troop safety over and above the risk of civilian casualties. This focus is, of course, understandable in the case of a democracy engaging in a war. Public opinion is powerful in a democracy and doesn’t like it when troops are put in harms way – that’s one of the origins of the democratic peace theory. (It’s sometimes called the body bag syndrome). Hence, a democracy may be particularly tempted to use drone attacks and targeted killings, since a more traditional war is difficult to sell to a powerful public opinion.

If indeed a democracy is tempted to use targeted killings, then the price to pay may be the loss of democratic peace. Targeted killings remove one of the most powerful causes of democratic peace: the high cost of war. By making war less costly on the party initiating the war, targeted killings make war more likely.

[T]o me the reason to prefer human to robotic war is a cold and brutal one: because it brings war home to the citizenry in the form of the dead and wounded, and the citizenry may then be less likely to support future wars except out of clear necessity. (source)

More on targeted killings here.

Measuring Human Rights (9): When “Worse” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Worse”

I discussed in this older post some of the problems related to the measurement of human rights violations, and to the assessment of progress or deterioration. One of the problems I mentioned is caused by improvements in measurement methods. Such improvements can in fact result in a statistic showing increasing numbers of rights violations, whereas in reality the numbers may not be increasing, and perhaps even decreasing. Better measurement means that you now compare current data that are more complete and better measured, with older numbers of rights violations that were simply incomplete.

The example I gave was about rape statistics: better statistical and reporting methods used by the police, combined with less social stigma etc. result in statistics showing a rising number of rapes, but this increase was due to the measurement methods (and other effects), not to what happened in real life.

I now came across another example. Collateral damage – or the unintentional killing of civilians during wars – seems to be higher now than a century ago (source). This may also be the result of better monitoring hiding a totally different trend. We all know that civilian deaths are much less acceptable now than they used to be, and that journalism and war reporting are probably much better (given better communication technology). Hence, people may now believe that it’s more important to count civilian deaths, and have better means to do so. As a result, the numbers of civilian deaths showing up in statistics will rise compared to older periods, but perhaps the real numbers don’t rise at all.

Of course, the increase of collateral damage may be the result of something else than better measurement: perhaps the lower level of acceptability of civilian deaths forces the army to classify some of those deaths as unintentional, even if they’re not (and then we have worse rather than better measurement). Or perhaps the relatively recent development of precision-guided munition has made the use of munition more widespread so that there are more victims: more bombs, even more precise bombs, can make more victims than less yet more imprecise bombs. Or perhaps the current form of warfare, with guerilla troops hiding among populations, does indeed produce more civilian deaths.

Still, I think my point stands: better measurement of human rights violations can give the wrong impression. Things may look as if they’re getting worse, but they’re not.