Detailed investigations of possible war crimes arising from drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen pose difficult questions for the United States administration and its close allies who implicitly condone or acquiesce in such attacks.
Answers are required, given that unmanned missile strikes have become President Barack Obama's weapon of choice in the "global war on terror", a term he has publicly disavowed while presiding over its rapid, largely covert escalation.
The legal question
The US is accused of unlawful killing in several documented incidents. The number of them, in both Pakistan and Yemen, suggests they are not one-offs but part of a policy that appears inherently illegal.
If the US was to state that it is a party to an armed conflict in either country between their governments and terrorists, principally al-Qaeda or affiliated groups, its actions would be subject to international laws of war.
But, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, the US, denying the obvious, has not said it is a party to a war in Pakistan or Yemen but is carrying out ad hoc operations to protect US interests.
Even if the US did make such a declaration, the laws of war permit attacks on enemy combatants and other military objectives but not those playing a non-military role. Civilians are protected.
Reporting on six unacknowledged American strikes in Yemen, HRW states: "Two of these attacks were in clear violation of international humanitarian law [and] the laws of war, because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons."
The US is accused of acting in contravention of Obama's own guidelines, set out in May, which emulated (but did not officially endorse) international human rights law. The president said that, to be legitimate, a target must pose an imminent risk to the US, cannot reasonably be captured and can be attacked without putting civilians at risk.
The strategic question
Drone strikes have reportedly been effective in eliminating individuals plotting attacks against the US and its allies. But the negative impact on local and international opinion of the Sarar (2012) and al-Majalah (2009) attacks in Yemen, for example, in which dozens of civilians died, and of many similar attacks in Waziristan, in Pakistan, was significant and may actually have served to strengthen support for extremists.
The moral question
By what right do the US president and his subordinates take it on themselves to end the lives of those who oppose American policy and values?
Most are not American citizens and do not reside in the US. They lack a vote or other normal means of challenging US policy.
It must be assumed that Obama would not order the killing on US soil of Americans who do have democratic rights of opposition. So, morally speaking, how can it be acceptable to kill disenfranchised non-Americans on foreign soil?
Drone technology is proliferating. Obama might ask himself a question: Is he creating the circumstances in which other states might one day follow his example and declare themselves morally justified in launching drone strikes against targets in the US? – © Guardian News & Media 2013