Will armed drones policy change?

November 4, 2016

With less than a week to go before a new US President is elected, we are thankfully in the home stretch of this exorbitantly long campaign season. Whichever way the political winds blow come 8 November, a lot is destined to change after the past eight years of President Barack Obama. However, one bit of foreign policy that may not change much is how the US continues its conflict with Al Qaeda and affiliated forces, and specifically how the US continues to use its armed and surveillance drones to counter terrorism.
Looking at the elections from this perspective, it’s important to know how the candidates line up on using drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. Given Hillary Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State from 2009-2013, much more is known about her position than is known about Donald Trump’s, but suffice it to say that either way, we shouldn’t expect the drones to stop droning on and on.

Clinton has stated she would use all tools at her disposal in countering terrorism, including drones, and has also adopted the same kind of language Obama used in dealing with “continuing imminent threats“, a standard certainly not found in international law. Clinton has prided herself also with her involvement in the execution of Osama Bin Laden, an operation—while not carried out through means of an armed drone—calls into question the legal standards the US uses in counterterrorism operations.

On the Republican side of the equation, Trump has claimed he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS” even going so far as to call for targeting family members of ISIS fighters, bringing into question whether Trump would consider the United States bound to follow the Geneva Conventions and other legal instruments, which bind states and call for protecting civilians even during armed conflict. This is not the only questionable comment made in terms of counterterrorism policy by Trump. He has also stated on many occasions his willingness to bring back waterboarding and other “worse” forms of torture in order to “fight fire with fire” in the battle against ISIS. This kind of language is a nightmare – not only for us international lawyers, but also for anybody in the business of protecting civilians or upholding basic notions of humanity.

The two independent candidates, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, have both spoken out against the use of armed drones (though Johnson has also said he’d leave the “option on the table” to use them), but unfortunately on this issue, these two candidates do not stand a chance to win in this election. Therefore, when faced with the choice between Clinton and Trump, and looking at her track record versus his war crimes plans, I suppose you’d have to opt for Clinton. But, I’d certainly like to get hold of her advisors and explain to them what this is doing to the rule of law, the American image in the world, and the fact that it sets a precedent for all drone users to follow the same path. In this sense, Clinton is the lesser of two evils, but someday on foreign policy issues, it would be nice not to have to pick between evils.

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