Self Defense and Non-International Armed Conflict in Drone Warfare

Over the past year, I’ve been spending much time on the questions of drone warfare and the legal issues raised – many talks, panel discussions, debates, and so on.  In the course of those discussions, as well as discussions with many experts one-on-one, I’ve wanted both to clarify a couple of my views and acknowledge a change in how I would currently characterize some of what we might call the “legal geography” of armed conflict.

So, I have been strongly identified with, and have been robustly urging, that one possible ground justifying the use of drone warfare and targeted killing, as well as setting rules for its conduct, is the international law of self defense.  I maintain, and certainly continue to maintain, that there are circumstances in which the use of targeted killing can and as a proper legal description should be understood to be the use of force as a lawful act of self defense even though it takes place outside of an armed conflict, and even though that use itself does not create an armed conflict.  It seems to me, before as now, crucial to be clear of the existence of this category of the use of force as a lawful possibility for the United States, particularly looking down the road to conditions and situations that do not implicate the current struggle with Al Qaeda, has nothing to do with 9/11, is not covered by the AUMF – a new terrorist group with different terrorist aims, for example, emerging in Latin America or somewhere in Asia twenty-five years from now, and having no connection to any of today’s issues.

I have suggested that this is an appropriate way of characterizing the legal status of attacks carried out by the US in Yemen or Somalia, or elsewhere that terrorists might go in seeking safe haven, or by new groups emerging that increasingly are not directly linked to AQ even if they take inspiration and aims from it.  I have queried at what point jihadist groups threatening the US become only “notionally Al Qaeda” and part of our existing legal framework of a non-international armed conflict only in theory, increasingly remote from the reality.  Territory or legal geography of conflict matters in that, not because the armed conflict is inherently bound to a territory or geography, but instead because the group at issue is only tenuously connected to the group initially defined as part of the armed conflict – partly under domestic law considerations and partly under international law considerations.  The non-international armed conflict goes where the participants go; and likewise if new groups engage in co-belligerent action, then they become part of the armed conflict.  But it has seemed to me in the past several years that some of these groups are in other places and not obviously connected, except by a forced abstraction, to the groups under the AUMF.

I still think that is a perfectly good way to see the use of force.  The new groups present a threat; they present a threat in a place where the armed conflict is not actually underway with respect to them; the US targets them as self-defense in the absence of an armed conflict.  Alternatively, however, if you think either that the people you are targeting are part of the armed conflict to start with because they are linked sufficiently to AQ and the authors of 9/11, or even more directly because they are AQ or affiliates fleeing Pakistan or Afghanistan in search of new safe havens, then the case for viewing this as simply the continuation of the existing non-international armed conflict is also highly plausible.

I view these rationales as permissive, rather than a forced choice between them, and think that each is a perfectly plausible and justifiable way of looking at current actions in Yemen or Somalia.  With regards to Pakistan, insofar as those being targeted are as part of the counterterrorism campaign, that seems to me unremarkably part of the on-going armed conflict, albeit one that has broadened out to include Pakistan Taliban and various terrorist groups in Pakistan that have allied themselves with AQ.  The point, however, is that the question of whether the proper framework for legal analysis is armed conflict or self-defense begins not from geography but instead from the identity of whom you fight; if it is a genuinely unrelated group and, even more plainly as a hypothetical, a genuinely unrelated issue – a new form of transnational Maoism in the Andes, say – then the question of legal geography comes into play to ask whether hostilities of sufficient intensity, etc., suffice to evidence a non-international armed conflict.

This is a change in emphasis for me, and in part a shift in view; in the past I have emphasized far more the geography as to where hostilities are underway, but I am persuaded that the correct analytic frame is to ask “who” and then whether, “where” the fighting takes place, the threshold of sufficient hostilities has been met.  But this is in the context of understanding that in places such as Yemen, it seems to me the facts can be plausibly understood to fit either view.  Indeed, an important shift in my view concerning Yemen in particular is that as we understand better the relationships between Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other groups in Yemen and AQ proper, the facts increasingly suggest that both in the past and even more strongly today, the best – and not merely a decently plausible – characterization is to understand them as part of the non-international armed conflict.  It seems to me that there are good legal grounds to understand Somalia and Yemen as attacks as individual acts of self-defense, but as I read the Woodward book and what John Brennan in particular says about the movement of AQ operatives into those new safe havens, and talk with well-informed reporters, those factual descriptions are persuading me that the better of the two views is to see attacks there as part of the on-going non-international armed conflict.  That would include the targeting al Al Aulaqi.

I also understand that the Obama administration has reasons grounded in domestic law for preferring to see the best international legal frame as non-international armed conflict in Yemen or Somalia.  This arises from its view that for domestic law purposes, the terms of the conflict are set by the AUMF, and not the discretionary scope of the executive.  I think this is perfectly plausible as an international law rationale – either seems to me available to it – and in any case, my reading of the facts on the ground in those places suggest that the administration is not simply making a “notional” argument by any means for how it sees attacks in Yemen or Somalia.  The Obama administration is on sound grounds in saying that the non-international armed conflict goes where those who participate go, and extends to groups that co-participate with them.  But that is a shift in my read of the facts from two years ago, and it is also a shift in emphasis as to taking geography into account.

As one government lawyer put it to me, the administration’s view is that, yes, it does have independent grounds for self-defense, exactly as Harold Koh said, and in an appropriate circumstance will invoke it nakedly, without recourse to an armed conflict.  But it also holds the view that once parties initiated a non-international armed conflict, and met the thresholds of intensity and all that, the same non-international armed conflict goes where they go, irrespective of geography.  As he immediately added, with notable weariness, this does not mean Predators over Paris, whether France or Texas; Yemen is not France.  Territorial integrity is an important, vitally important principle of international law – but it can be overcome where a state either cannot or will not control its territory – which is to say, assert the lawful sovereignty over territory for which it has both a privilege but an obligation.  No safe havens has also been a bedrock qualification on territorial integrity of states, as a matter of self defense and consistent state practice.

I am (still) completing a new essay on the operational roles of drones, a roster of strategic uses, one that leaves aside the legal issues in favor of trying to get an analytic handle on the increasingly variegated uses of drones and targeted killing.  It seems to me important for legal analysis because the variations are sufficiently great at this stage that different uses suggest different legal frameworks – some are involved in armed conflict, for example, and some might not be.  But as the argument over the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and beyond intensifies, I thought it would be worth taking a moment both to clarify and advance my own baseline legal position.  Thus:

Although asserting the framework of self defense, and elaborating its constraints based in necessity, discrimination, and proportionality is crucial, because not all uses of force by the United States will always and forever be instances of armed conflict, it does seem to me plausible and – given the current understanding of facts on the ground in Yemen and Somalia – the best understanding of who is being targeted to regard those uses of force as part of the on-going non-international armed conflict.

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