Truman National Security Project

Human rights and the Wars of the 21st century


Drones, cyber attacks and other new, more technologically sophisticated methods of conducting warfare have become the “new normal” in  the early 21st century.   At first glance, these new means and methods of warfare appear to make war less messy, with less damage and less loss of life.  The new warfare is often touted as being less destructive and more humane.  However, human rights issues still emerge and there appears to be an unintended consequence of making the decision to engage in warfare easier.  Policy makers must be ever mindful of this potential side effect.

The promotion of human rights has long been a hallmark of US foreign affairs.  As our technology has increased, there is greater emphasis placed on the mitigating, or minimizing, collateral damage and unnecessary suffering of both combatants and non-combatants.  However, the damages, both physical and human, can be as bad, if not worse when using drones or cyber to engage in warfare.  The normal process’ nations employ to engage in warfare are removed altogether when using drones or cyber.  There are no armies involved, there are no resolutions by legislature’s to resort to force or declarations of war, and, in reality, there is a rejection of conforming to the jus ad bellum – the lawfulness of resorting to armed conflict.  Attacks can just simply happen at the whim of the sovereign.  This sounds more like we are regressing, rather than progressing in how we wage war.

Drones.  There are two key human rights issues that need to be addressed with the employment of drones – one being the right to life and the other due process of law.  Just in the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is estimated there have been over 370 drone strikes in the past few years.  It is not yet discernible what the collateral loss of life has been for those residing in these territories.  The right to live and be free from government interference is a benchmark of human rights law.  This principle was embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1946.  Drones, however, put people at risk every day without any means to prepare for, or defend themselves from, such attacks.  Many innocent lives will, if not occurring already (there are conflicting reports and no hard data being presented), be lost as a result of attacks seeking to kill perhaps one possible terrorist.  This potential violation of human rights must be guarded against by both US policy makers as well as the international community.  The potential use of drones as a means of warfare by nations other  than the US will only increase the possibility that these numbers will increase dramatically over the next few years.  The real danger is this becoming  a norm for waging war.  Those regions where drones are employed will not only violate the right to life, but certainly minimize human beings ability to enjoy life free from potential attacks.  One can argue this is happening now.  Additionally, there remains the problem of who decides this person is an alleged terrorist or not, and whether or not there are presenting potential harm to the United States or other nation claiming they should die.  There is no courtroom, no innocence until proven guilty.  It is simply up to the sovereign without any due process of law.

Cyber.  The possibility of mass disruptions to communications, electricity, food, oil supplies etc represent a major threat to the human rights of all citizens around the world when cyber is employed as a means of warfare.  The lack of water, food and other essentials can deprive enormous numbers of innocent civilians impacted by such attacks.  Collateral damage is something the human rights community has been attempting to prevent since the conclusion of the Second World War.  When cyber can be employed to fight, this will reverse that trend almost immediately.   A government entity, from just one computer, will soon (if not already), have the ability to take down a power grid, gas lines, Wall Street or other major entity that will result in chaos for the nation on the receiving end of such an attack.  The result will be catastrophic and the abilty to use computers in this fashion in the hands of non-state actors or al Qaeda only further complicates the situation and the response to such an attack.

Thus, while new, technologically sophisticated tools for waging war can correctly be viewed as minimizing loss of life, and making the use of ground troops unnecessary, policy makers must remain ever mindful of the long term ramifications of employing such “weapons” without ensuring there is a legal regime in place, and accepted by the international community, to prevent abuse and potential massive loss of human life.  Human rights such as the right to life and due process of law must necessarily continue to be at the forefront of US foreign policymaking.

Glenn Sulmasy is the Chairman of the Humanities Department and a professor of law at the US Coast Guard Academy. The views expressed herein are his own.