Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Morality of Drone Attacks – Moral Maze Radio 4

Last night’s Moral Maze on the morality of drones is worth listening to but it should come with a health warning.  The cut and thrust nature of the debate that makes the programme so entertaining can cause key arguments to be neglected or too easily dismissed.  Three of the ‘witnesses’ on the programme are people that I have worked with closely.  Chris Cole, Dr Peter Lee and Paul Schulte span a spectrum of the debate.  (Peter Lee and Paul Schulte were contributors to the Baptist, Methodist and URC report Drones: Ethical dilemmas in the application of lethal force.)  The fourth witness Richard Kemp, a former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, provided a very worthwhile, albeit somewhat disconcerting, contribution.
Dr Peter Lee, KCL
Last night’s debate did have some elements of surprise – even for the well-established panel members  Giles Fraser, Melanie Philips, Matthew Taylor and Michael Portillo.  One came when Peter Lee was asked, at the start of his witness section, what problems he had with drones.  “I don’t” was the two word reply.  One area in which the flow of argument seemed less coherent was on the question as to whether or how drones are different from any other form of air power. 

However it was implicitly acknowledged, although not actually stated, that drones offer a capability to track and kill which is of an order of magnitude more advanced than other forms of military hardware.  Drone technology has been critical to the transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary organisation.  The witnesses (with the exception of Chris Cole) all seemed to defend the necessity of this development in the context of counter-terrorism.  Paul Schulte argued from a perspective of pragmatic realism.  His robust tone might have been more subdued had he been asked more open questions on his view of the morality.  As it was, this section strengthened the overall perception arising from the programme that combating terrorists with missiles in a global “war on terror” was an inevitable direction of travel.

The impact of armed drones on communities who are subjected to persistent surveillance was poorly addressed in this 45 minute programme.  A view from Pakistan was not present.  Are we to accept that the impact is exaggerated by the Taliban?  The impact of living under drones was covered briefly in the section with Richard Kemp for whom the impact on communities was an inevitable and excusable consequence of war.   But what about countries with whom we are not at war? 

We have issues in the UK with video surveillance in our communities.  We generally now welcome cameras in our city centres to help combat crime.  We are less keen to have them scattered throughout our neighbourhoods and outside our houses.  We tolerate or welcome them because ultimately there is accountability for their use (and indeed now we can elect our Police Commissioners).  We would not however tolerate a proposal to attach guns to the cameras and enable them to roam our neighbourhoods freely with no accountability.  Imagine then, that this proposal is not only implemented, but that the cameras with guns are used to kill 3000 people and are controlled by an un-trusted even hostile foreign power.  We would have a major uprising on our hands.

What then is the strategy in north-western Pakistan?  Not only is the CIA’s use of armed drones an abuse of human rights, it does not make sense in the battle for heart and minds.  It is causing the family members of those who have been unjustly and unaccountably killed to join the ranks of violent Islamic militants. 
Giles Fraser, who lectures on ethics and leadership at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, and who is the keynote speaker for our conference, Think, Speak, Act, provided an impressive performance against difficult odds.  He was given 5 seconds for a last word:  “it is difficult but we have to hold ourselves accountable to a higher moral standard and we still have to believe in the rule of war”.