New rules for new warfare

With the nomination of Professor Samantha Powers as U.S. ambassador and the appointment of Susan Rice to serve as the president's national security advisor (no Senate confirmation required), national security and human rights will be among the hot topics over the next few weeks. Where do these two incredibly smart and capable woman stand on vital issues confronting the nation?

Drones, cyber attacks and other new, more technologically sophisticated methods of conducting warfare have become the "new normal" in the early 21st century. At first glance, these new means and methods of warfare appear to make war less messy, with less damage and less loss of life. Some tout this new warfare less destructive and more humane. However, human rights issues still emerge and there appears to be an unintended consequence of making the decision to engage in warfare easier. Policy makers must be ever mindful of this potential side effect.

The promotion of human rights has long been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy. As our technology has increased, there has been a greater emphasis placed on mitigating, or minimizing, collateral damage and unnecessary suffering of both combatants and non-combatants. However, the damages, both physical and human, can be as bad, if not worse when using drones or cyber attacks to engage in warfare. The normal processes nations employ to engage in warfare are removed altogether when using drones or cyber. There are no armies involved, there are no resolutions by legislatures authorizing force or declaring war, and, in reality, there is a rejection of conforming to the jus ad bellum - the lawfulness of resorting to armed conflict. Attacks can just simply happen at the whim of the sovereign. This sounds more like we are regressing, rather than progressing in how we wage war.


There are two key human rights issues that need to be addressed with the employment of drones - one being the right to life and the other due process of law. Just in the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan it is estimated there have been over 370 drone strikes in the past few years. It is not yet discernible what the collateral loss of life has been for those residing in these territories. The right to live and be free from government interference is a benchmark of human rights law. Embodying this principle is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved in 1946.

Drones, however, put people at risk every day without any means to prepare for or defend themselves from such attacks. Many innocent lives have and will be lost (there are conflicting reports and no hard data being presented as to how many) to kill perhaps one possible terrorist. Both U.S. policy makers as well as the international community must guard against this potential violation of human rights.

The prospective use of drones as a means of warfare by nations other than the United States will only increase the possibility that these numbers will increase dramatically over the next few years. The real danger is this becoming a norm for waging war.

Those regions where militaries employ drones will not only suffer violations of the right to life, but minimize the ability of human beings to enjoy life free from potential attacks. One can argue this is happening now. Additionally, there remains the problem of who decides which person is an alleged terrorist and whether they present potential harm to the United States or other nations, and so should die. There is no courtroom, no innocence until proven guilty. It is simply up to the sovereign without any due process of law.

Cyber attacks

The possibility of mass disruptions to communications, electricity, food, oil supplies, represents a major threat to the human rights of all citizens around the world when nations or groups employ cyber attacks as a means of warfare. The lack of water, food and other essentials can deprive enormous numbers of innocent civilians impacted by such attacks.

Collateral damage is something the human rights community has been attempting to prevent since the conclusion of World War II. Use of cyber warfare will reverse that trend almost immediately.

A government entity, from just one computer, will soon (if not already), have the ability to take down a power grid, disrupt gas lines, disable Wall Street or other major financial entities, causing chaos for the nation on the receiving end of such an attack.

The result will be catastrophic. The ability to use computers in this fashion in the hands of non-state actors or al-Qaida would only further complicate the situation and the response to such an attack.

Thus, while these technologically sophisticated tools for waging war can correctly be viewed as minimizing loss of life - and making the use of ground troops unnecessary - policy makers must remain ever mindful of the long-term ramifications of employing such "weapons." Our leaders need to ensure there is a legal regime in place, accepted by the international community, to prevent abuse and potential massive loss of human life.

Human rights such as the right to life and due process of law must necessarily continue to be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policymaking.

The hearings this summer on Powers' nomination and the discussion of the appointment of Rice must address these issues.

Glenn Sulmasy is the chairman of the Humanities Department and a professor of law at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. The views expressed herein are his own.


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