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:

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (16): Climate and Geography

There are some contingent reasons why countries’ governments develop or fail to develop a strong system of centralized control over resources. And those that fail to do so tend to be more democratic. The detailed argument is here, but I’ll give you a short summary.

Montesquieu already related differences in human political conditions to climatic differences. And indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the argument that water for instance plays a crucial role. Water makes land valuable, but only in countries where there’s continuous rainfall over the seasons will water be available in sufficient quantities. In other countries, a centrally coordinated irrigation system will be necessary, and this requirement favors a strong central government. In countries where citizens don’t depend on the government for water for their agriculture for instance, those citizens have more bargaining power.

Also, continuous rainfall results in agrarian surpluses, which in turn favor urbanization and taxation. Taxation is a well-known cause of democratization (“no taxation without representation“), and popular mobilization against authoritarian rule is easier in large cities. Urbanization also leads to commerce, specialization and industrialization, phenomena which result in a large and powerful middle class, able to bargain the taxes it pays against more rights and freedoms.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that democracy developed first in North-West Europe and North America, regions with plenty of rainfall. And neither is it surprising that so many non-democracies suffer from the so-called resource curse: countries that are endowed with natural resources that – unlike rainfall – can easily be brought under central control tend to develop governance structures that favor such control. Government will be centralized and authoritarian because the resource rents for the leaders are very high. And when there’s central control over resources, there’s also central control over all the rest: leaders have a strong financial incentive to stay in power and to oppress opposition movements.

But it’s not just climate that favors democracy or autocracy. There’s also geography. A country that is shielded from external military threats as a result of its geography or topography – for example because it’s an island, has a long coastal line, or is situated in a mountainous area – doesn’t need to sustain a standing army at the exclusive disposal of its leader. Without such an army, the leader’s control over coercion is limited and it’s much more difficult to develop a centralized governance system. Perhaps the success of democracy in countries such as Iceland, the UK, Scandinavia and Switzerland can be explained in this way. The army in Switzerland is really a volunteer militia, whereas the army in the UK has long been the hobby of the nobility.

So these are two examples of climate and geography deciding the balance of power in favor of citizens. A government that isn’t favored by climate or geography in its attempts to centralize power faces a stronger citizenry. Likewise, if a government depends on its citizens’ agreement for the use of an important resource such as the military – for geographic reasons – then those citizens have bargaining power. They will only participate in war or conquest if they get something in return, e.g. more rights and freedoms.

Of course, it would be silly to claim that climate factors or geography determine political outcomes, or even that they are the main causes. Democracy depends on a lot of things, especially beliefs and intentional collective action , much more than objective and contingent circumstances. But those circumstances do play a role, as they always do. Other causes are discussed in other posts in this blog series.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (18): Comparing Apples and Oranges

Before the introduction of tin helmets during the First World War, soldiers only had cloth hats to wear. The strange thing was that after the introduction of tin hats, the number of injuries to the head increased dramatically. Needless to say, this was counter-intuitive. The new helmets were designed precisely to avoid or limit such injuries.

Of course, people were comparing apples with oranges, namely statistics on head injuries before and after the introduction of the new helmets. In fact, what they should have done, and effectively did after they realized their mistake, was to include in the statistics, not only the injuries, but also the fatalities. After the introduction of the new helmets, the number of fatalities dropped dramatically, but the number of injuries went up because the tin helmet was saving soldiers’ lives, but the soldiers were still injured.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (17): The Correlation-Causation Problem and Omitted Variable Bias

Suppose we see from Department of Defense data that male U.S. soldiers are more likely to be killed in action than female soldiers. Or, more precisely, the percentage of male soldiers killed in action is larger than the percentage of female soldiers. So there is a correlation between the gender of soldiers and the likelihood of being killed in action.

One could – and one often does – conclude from such a finding that there is a causation of some kind: the gender of soldiers increases the chances of being killed in action. Again more precisely: one can conclude that some aspects of gender – e.g. a male propensity for risk taking – leads to higher mortality.

However, it’s here that the Omitted Variable Bias pops up. The real cause of the discrepancy between male and female combat mortality may not be gender or a gender related thing, but a third element, an “omitted variable” which doesn’t show up in the correlation. In our fictional example, it may be the type of deployment: it may be that male soldiers are more commonly deployed in dangerous combat operations, whereas female soldiers may be more active in support operations away from the front-line.

OK, time for a real example. It has to do with home-schooling. In the U.S., many parents decide to keep their children away from school and teach them at home. For different reasons: ideological ones, reasons that have to do with their children’s special needs etc. The reasons are not important here. What is important is that many people think that home-schooled children are somehow less well educated (parents, after all, aren’t trained teachers). However, proponents of home-schooling point to a study that found that these children score above average in tests. However, this is a correlation, not necessarily a causal link. It doesn’t prove that home-schooling is superior to traditional schooling. Parents who teach their children at home are, by definition, heavily involved in their children’s education. The children of such parents do above average in normal schooling as well. The omitted variable here is parents’ involvement. It’s not the fact that the children are schooled at home that explains their above average scores. It’s the type of parents. Instead of comparing home-schooled children to all other children, one should compare them to children from similar families in the traditional system.

Greg Mankiw believes he has found another example of Omitted Variable Bias in the data plotting test scores for U.S. students against their family income:

Kids from higher income families get higher average SAT scores. Of course! But so what? This fact tells us nothing about the causal impact of income on test scores. … This graph is a good example of omitted variable bias … The key omitted variable here is parents’ IQ. Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring. Suppose we were to graph average SAT scores by the number of bathrooms a student has in his or her family home. That curve would also likely slope upward. (After all, people with more money buy larger homes with more bathrooms.) But it would be a mistake to conclude that installing an extra toilet raises yours kids’ SAT scores. … It would be interesting to see the above graph reproduced for adopted children only. I bet that the curve would be a lot flatter. Greg Mankiw (source)

Meaning that adopted children, who usually don’t receive their genes from their new families, have equal test scores, no matter if they have been adopted by rich or poor families. Meaning in turn that the wealth of the family in which you are raised doesn’t influence your education level, test scores or intelligence.

However, in his typical hurry to discard all possible negative effects of poverty, Mankiw may have gone a bit too fast. While it’s not impossible that the correlation is fully explained by differences in parental IQ, other evidence points elsewhere. I’m always suspicious of theories that take one cause, exclude every other type of explanation and end up with a fully deterministic system, especially if the one cause that is selected is DNA. Life is more complex than that. Regarding this particular matter, education levels are to some extent determined by parental income (university enrollment is determined both by test scores and by parental income, even to the extent that people from high income families but with average test scores, are slightly more likely to enroll in university than people from poor families but with high test scores).

What Mankiw did, in trying to avoid the Omitted Variable Bias, was in fact another type of bias, one which we could call the Singular Variable Bias: assuming that a phenomenon has a singular cause.

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.

Cultural Rights (9): Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:

  • direct military force
  • police brutality
  • genocide
  • the threat of force
  • intimidation
  • rape
  • pogrom
  • demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
  • discriminatory legislation or policies
  • tribal politics
  • economic exclusion
  • hate speech, propaganda
  • rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
  • a combination of the above.

Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.

Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.

The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
  • Iraq during the Iraq war
  • India and Pakistan during their partition
  • The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
  • Rwanda during the genocide
  • The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
  • The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
  • The Palestinian exodus
  • Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
  • Darfur
  • etc.

However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.

Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:

  • To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
  • To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
  • To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.

Human Rights and International Law (5): Enforcement of Human Rights

Complaints, verdicts, judgments, condemnations and recommendations are not enough. Words do have some power. They may be able to influence those who violate rights or those who are unwilling to protect rights. And the language of rights is a tool that victims can use to recognize their predicament, to organize their struggles, to rally supporters and to protect themselves. It helps them to understand that their situation is not their fate; that their suffering is not a necessary contribution to the general welfare or to the course of history. Knowing that you have rights can already change a lot. Protest requires consciousness, and protest can sometimes be effective.

But words sometimes need to be followed by actions. Force and coercion, or an executive power, is often necessary. Law enforcement can require military force, policing, sanctions, interventions etc. The international community, or those who represent this community, need to be able to go against the will of individual states and force them in a certain direction.

The judiciary, according to Montesquieu, does not really have power. It depends on the executive for the execution of its judgments. However, in an international environment, it has always been very difficult to enforce law and judicial judgments. The independence of states, the right to self-determination and national sovereignty have always inhibited international coercion of individual states. These principles sometimes even inhibit effective monitoring. So, if you cannot even look and judge, it is obvious that it is even more difficult to enforce your judgment.

There are global monitoring institutions, but no world executive, no world government, no world police, no strong arm of the international law, and no global monopoly of violence. Perhaps the Security Council could become the world police, but it has to rely on the military force of member states and it has to deal with the veto system. Victims of rights violations are often left in the hands of their butchers.

Terrorism and Human Rights (1): “The U.S. Coming Home!”

“The date is October the 1st, 2011, exactly 20 days after the worst terrorist attack in US history, an attack in which Muslim extremists used nuclear bombs to inflict heavy damage on 3 American cities, embarrassing the security forces who were on high alert on the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

Today, the whole world was listening to President Obama’s first policy speech after the events. The most shocking announcement was undoubtedly the decision to no longer deploy US troops abroad. The President defended this Coming Home decision by the failure of 10 years of military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Middle East, Nigeria and Indonesia to bring about more security for the American people. Evidence has shown that US involvement abroad, even peaceful and objectively beneficial involvement, rather than promoting US security, actually fosters hate, resentment and fanaticism. The objects of American involvement, even if this involvement means billions of dollars of aid, seem to think that it is fundamentally a ploy to imperialize them, a crusade to take away their identity, religion and wealth. Independence, national pride and Allah is what counts for them.

It has also become clear that the US was wrong to think in terms of frontlines in its war with Muslim terrorists. The strategy to try to attack the enemy in their homelands, the first frontline, rather than wait till they get on American soil, has proven to be ineffective militarily, and possibly even counter-effective psychologically: it has provided fuel for anti-crusader and anti-colonialist rhetoric, convincing ever more young Muslim martyrs and extremist Muslim regimes of the anti-Muslim and hence satanic nature of the Christian unbelievers.

Unlike an enemy army in a classical 20th century war, this enemy cannot be defeated by an overpowering military attack. The strongest military in the world cannot defeat a relatively small group of undoubting and unthinking amateurs ready to die with a makeshift bomb in their hands. With every amateur it kills it only produces more evidence of the presence of Satan on holy soil. Hence, the more it tries to root out the enemy, the more enemies it creates. The President therefore, wisely in our view, decided to shift focus from the attack to the defensive. Bringing our boys back home to defend the American border, effectively turning the army into a super coastguard and border patrol, should not be viewed as giving in to the enemy, a retreat or a Last Stand. That would only be a return to an inadequate and outdated military logic, useless given the kind of enemy we are dealing with.

Together with measures to prevent homegrown terrorism ’96 which, fortunately, has been a limited phenomenon until now ’96 a relentless border control should indeed be able to offer protection. The borders must, of course, include the entrances of airplanes and ships heading for the US. In order to be independent from foreign security services, the President has asked for legislation allowing only US aircraft and ship to enter the US. If economically necessary, the US will acquire a larger fleet. Anyway, unnecessary travel to the US will be discouraged.

The economic drawbacks of rigorous border controls will be countered by technological innovations funded by army budgets which become available when budgets for overseas operations start to diminish. The President also asked the citizens to prepare for the possibility of a certain number of years of economic depression. Energy supplies may also suffer as a consequence of the US drawback. Traditional allies will be disappointed by their abandonment. The loss of US military assistance will even endanger the existence of some regimes. Those which are also oil suppliers will resent the US and will disrupt the supply. The President is conscious of the economic impact this will have but asks the scientific community to tackle the problem of oil dependence. Existing alternatives, including nuclear energy, will be developed. Repatriated nuclear warheads, if not necessary for domestic security, will be recycled in the energy industry.

Some allies which are important for the US domestically, such as Israel, will not be abandoned without continued support. Military equipment not necessary for border control and security on US soil, will be handed over to them after they lose the protective umbrella of a US presence in their region. Financial assistance will continue to be possible.

Because US troops will no longer be stationed abroad, US expats can become easy targets for terrorists. The President therefore advises them to make plans to return home as soon as possible. The government will establish funds to incite people to come home and to compensate for damages they will incur. US multinationals will be legally forced to employ local people only for their foreign affiliates. The US government will immediately cease to employ its citizens in development projects in Africa and elsewhere. To alleviate the economic shock this will produce in developing countries, the US will double its funds for development aid for a period of 5 years. These funds, however, will be spend entirely by third parties. No US agencies will be active abroad. The US will also withdraw from NATO, the UN, and all other international institutions.”

More on terrorism.