Top British judge suggests ban on 'cruel' killer roboplanes
Manned bomber slaughter apparently OK
A retired top-ranking British judge has suggested that unmanned aircraft are "so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance", and should be banned.
Lord Bingham, retired last year as senior law lord - in other words top judge in Britain's highest court - and made his remarks to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in an interview last week. A full transcript can be read here in pdf.
According to Lord Bingham:
Are there, for example, and this goes to conflict, not post-conflict situations, weapons that ought to be outlawed? From time to time in the history of international law various weapons have been thought to be so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance. I think cluster bombs and land mines are the most recent examples. It may be — it may be, I’m not expressing a view - that unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians is a weapon the international community should decide should not be used.
The remarks have been reported by the Telegraph, under the headline "Unmanned drones could be banned, says judge". The broadsheet goes on to say that "Drones have become an important tool... However, they have been known to make errors and kill civilians... Britain has indicated that it plans to use them as weapons in the future*".
It's difficult to know exactly what the learned lord means by "unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians", but it's well known that America is waging an aggressive aerial campaign in both Afghanistan (using mainly military aircraft both manned and unmanned, in cooperation with NATO allies) and across the border in Pakistan (with strikes thought to be delivered mostly by the CIA's secret drone fleet).
The weapon most commonly used by the unmanned Predator and Reaper aircraft involved is the Hellfire laser-guided missile, a 100-pound weapon originally designed as an antitank munition. The aircraft are under the control of a human pilot at all times, and the weapons are targeted and fired by human operators.
In the context of airstrikes, the Hellfire is relatively surgical, but nonetheless there have been many reports of civilians being killed in Hellfire strikes by unmanned craft. In one particularly bloody series of strikes recently, US drone operators were thought to have killed as many as seventy people in Pakistan.
However, drones and Hellfires pale into insignificance against the weapons dropped and bodycount racked up by ordinary manned bombers. In just one incident during May, a US B-1 strategic bomber (manned) dropped no less than five 500-pounder and three blockbusting 2000-pounder bombs on an Afghan village. These four tons of munitions utterly destroyed a mosque, a shrine and various other buildings, and killed a reported 140 people.
Looking back to earlier modern campaigns like the invasion of Iraq and the Kosovo intervention against Serbia, manned bombers dropped munitions by the tens of kilotons and killed civilians - not to mention inoffensive conscripts - in the many thousands.
Against this sort of background, it seems more than a little puzzling to hear one of the nation's finest legal minds suggesting that unmanned aircraft are somehow "so cruel as to be beyond human tolerance", whereas manned bombers are presumably OK. Particularly as the unmanned aircraft's use of weapons is completely under the control of human operators anyway. ®
*Actually Blighty has been doing so for some time.
The man is suffering from a failure of concrete perception. It's increasingly common nowadays, as people make judgments based on comforting abstractions while shielded from the pitiless impact of reality.
What's cruel is being hurt; death itself isn't bad at all, just as long as it's very quick and more or less painless. Being hit on the head by a one-ton bomb isn't very cruel at all, as you're unlikely to know anything about it. One moment you're going about your business, the next there is no you to be doing anything.
The worse the injury, the less susceptible to effective treatment, and the longer before it can heal or be alleviated, the more cruelty. Being stabbed seriously is quite cruel, especially if you can't get to a nice sterile well-equipped hospital with modern anaesthetics. Being shot in the guts is cruel; so is being hit by blast and/or fragments from that one-ton bomb if you are unfortunate enough not to be killed outright.
Worse, IMHO, are being burned by a flamethrower, covered with napalm or white phosphorus, killed by slow-acting poison gas, or being caught by radiation from a nuclear weapon. Not to mention surviving (injured or otherwise) while your parents, children, siblings, etc. are killed or maimed.
A small, low-flying robot drone is perhaps more likely to score a direct hit on its target, thereby killing him/them with a minimum of extra suffering. As the article points out, a manned bomber usually stays good and high to avoid the slightest risk to its precious crew, and - as manned bombers have for the past century - probably misses its targets by anywhere between 50 yards and a few miles.
If we want to reduce cruelty, we should consider giving up the habit of killing people we disapprove of (or trying to kill them and killing others instead). Our glorious leaders should ask themselves, as seriously as they can manage, "whom would Jesus bomb"?
Cluster bombs and land mines
One hopefully will keep the ability to produce them, as they are incredibly useful in "making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country", as the Great Pacifist put it...
@ Harry Stottle
You are absolutely right, and doubly so in the current combat environment. No personal risk means it's too easy to just drob the bomb and accept the collateral damage, or drop it even if we are not sure of the target.
We cannot justify making our soldiers and pilots more important than 'enemy' civilians, because we make enemies of the civiian population and build the support and recruitment capability of the enemy.
Set up the planes with sniper rifles, take out just the baddies even if they are in a crowd, and we will be heroes instead of pariahs.