Terrorism and Human Rights (40): Targeted Killings, Pros and Cons

The use of so-called drone airplanes to target and kill suspected terrorists is in the news again. Some in the U.S. have voiced what in my view are justified yet somewhat myopic concerns about the supposed authority of the U.S. President to target American citizens on foreign or domestic soil. This is one of many cases in which the value of due process clashes with the need to respond to imminent threats. As usual, the executive has a tendency to focus on the latter.

The concerns that have been voiced recently are myopic in the sense that most drone attacks take place abroad and most victims are foreigners. Let’s therefore limit our discussion to the justifiability of targeting foreigners abroad. (These drone attacks, by the way, are just one form of targeted killing – the British SAS and the Israeli Mossad use or have used human operators to stalk and shoot terrorists at home or abroad).

So, we’re talking about governments carrying out the killings, and the targets are suspected foreign terrorists, insurgents or combatants hiding on foreign soil. Governments try to justify such killings by arguing that they and the targets are engaged in armed conflict: a war if not necessarily a declared one. If indeed we are dealing with a war then the targets do not even have to pose an imminent threat when they are killed. A history of violence and a risk of future violence are sufficient reasons to target and kill them. In a war, it’s deemed acceptable to kill unthreatening and even unarmed enemy forces, as long as these forces are hostile and potentially dangerous elements in an ongoing conflict. Targeted killing is therefore seen as equivalent to the normal and traditionally unlimited wartime right to kill enemy soldiers.

That is also why the possibility of apprehension is not considered a sufficient reason to abstain from targeted killing, although in practice most killings are of people who are difficult to apprehend.

So that’s the governmental story about targeted killing. How should we assess this story? There are some good sides to it, and some bad:


  • If indeed we’re dealing with a war, then concerns about extra-judicial killings, about the absence of imminent threats and the failure to apprehend when possible do not seem justified. That’s a bog “if” of course. One has the feeling that the “war on terror” has been called a war not because it is one but because it yields the right to kill. And one can even question the traditional right to unlimited killing of soldiers during wartime, as Jeff McMahan has done.
  • Drone attacks evidently minimize the risks of casualties on the attacker’s side, even possibly down to zero. Drones may also provide cover for soldiers in the field during regular operations.
  • Although these things are difficult to measure given the secrecy of the whole affair, it does seem obvious that drone attacks, when compared to standard military attacks, should in principle involve fewer civilian casualties. (An attempt to measure this is presented here. A less rosy view on the matter is here and here).
  • Drone attacks may produce leadership vacuums and lead to disorganization in the terrorist organization. Organizational decapitation may hurt terrorist groups more than regular attacks.


  • Drone attacks – especially if they become widespread – mean that the attacking side no longer has skin in the game. As a result, these attacks may remove an important restraint on war. Wars or military adventures may become more common as they become less costly in human terms on the attacker’s side.
  • Positing the equivalence with normal wartime killing implies that the drone operators, who are commonly situated far from the battlefield and close to residential areas in the home country, are legitimate targets for retaliation. Ironically, drone attacks may therefore encourage terrorist attacks.
  • As already stated, a lot hinges on the use of words. Killing people who aren’t an immediate military threat may be tantamount to extra-judicial execution. And merely labeling those people “combatants” and the operation a “war” isn’t enough to acquire the right to normal wartime killing. It may often be more precise to label terrorist attacks as normal crimes rather than acts of “war”, in which case normal judicial proceedings are more appropriate, which means apprehension and trial, and killing only when apprehension is impossible and a threat is imminent.
  • The choice to kill when apprehension is possible means forgoing the possibility to put the target on trial and demonstrate to the world how a civilized country deals with threats. It gives the opposite message that violence is the appropriate form of defense and retaliation.
  • Intelligence that could be gathered by capturing and questioning the targets is lost when they are killed.
  • The lack of transparency opens the door to abuse, as does the view that an imminent threat is not required.
  • Drone attacks often violate the sovereignty of other countries, setting a dangerous precedent.
  • Targeted killing may be fatal to the democratic peace theory (see here for more details).

Some of these points carry more weight than others, and some perhaps none at all. Other points could be added. It’s up to the reader to make up his or her own mind, but my view is the following: compared to the general unpleasantness of war, targeted killing isn’t particularly shocking and can even be seen as a step forward. That is, as long as it is really limited to an actual, uncontested war involving real combatants who pose an imminent threat, and a threat that can’t be averted by apprehension and trial.

What is perhaps more shocking than the attacks themselves is the fact that the whole “war” rhetoric has become so vague that anything can be called a war. Is there a crime with which we’re not “at war”? When ordinary criminals – and I consider most terrorists to be ordinary criminals, ordinary except for their particular motivation – can be targeted like enemy soldiers, what is left of criminal justice? Extra-judicial execution then becomes the only form of crime prevention.

More on targeted killing here.

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.

Terrorism and Human Rights (20): Targeted Killing of Terrorists

Are governments, or even private individuals, allowed to kill terrorists when killing them is the only way to prevent a terrorist attack? Intuitively, I would say “yes”, but only if certain conditions are met: the attack must be imminent, and no other solution is possible. In fact, these conditions limit the possibility to cases such as killing a terrorist with explosives clearly visible, and seen – from a distance – to be moving towards a target.

Most cases will be different and will make it possible for the police or bystanders to disable the terrorist in some other way, short of killing him or her, and without putting themselves at risk. I never understood why the British SAS needed a policy to target and kill IRA terrorists when they were not engaged in an imminent terrorist attack and when they could easily be arrested (see here for the story).

Now, one could reply to this with this question: why should we treat terrorists better than soldiers? In a war, soldiers can be killed almost at will. If an army spots enemy soldiers, it can kill them without violating any law of war, even if these enemy soldiers are not engaged in an imminent attack. So why can’t we kill terrorists in the same way? In fact, we should treat soldiers better, since many of them are conscripts who do not target innocent civilians. Terrorists are (normally) volunteers who target innocent civilians. That makes two aggravating circumstances.

In answer to this, we could state that terrorism isn’t a war; it’s a criminal act. Some things are allowed in a war which aren’t allowed in peacetime. And terrorism is horrible and not peaceful at all, but not everything that is horrible or a breach of peace is necessarily a war. If we are allowed to stop the crime of terrorism with targeted killings – even if the crime is not imminent – then why not normal murder as well? For example, we may know that someone is about to commit (a non-terrorist) murder, but the act is not imminent. If you accept the SAS tactic, you also have to accept the preventive killing of normal murderers.

Some go even further, and accept not only targeted killing in cases without an imminent threat, but also killing after the fact. They would accept the killing of Osama bin Laden, even if he wasn’t planning a non-imminent attack. They would justify this killing based on his past actions. (Another example is the targeted killing by Mossad of the people involved in the Munich Olympics killings, made into a movie by Spielberg). I think that’s just as unacceptable as the targeted killing SAS style. It’s punishment without due process.