Press TV has talked with Paul Wolf, a human rights and international lawyer from Washington D.C., to further discuss the United States’ deadly assassination drone strikes across the Middle East and Africa.
What follows is a rough transcription of the interview.
Mr. Wolf, in the case of Yemen, officials, we know, have said that the drone attacks are carried out with their consent, but does that make them okay?
I do not think so, because I do think that there is a valid distinction there, whether there is a war or not. If there is a war there is a better case for saying that the place where the attacks are happening is the battlefield and if people are killed in a combat zone, well that is what we do in war and the fact that these are unmanned aircrafts really does not change the law in that respect. And in Yemen, what we have is an internal conflict between people who want to overthrow the government, they do not want to harm the United States, they are trying to influence their own government and if the United States is invited into Yemen, and I did not know that, but if that is the case that the Yemeni government has approved of this, then it would be legal for the United States to help Yemen put down an insurgency.
So, those situations are distinguishable, but still you have to look in Yemen, how those attacks are carried out. You have to look at each individual attack. It has never been legal to kill someone in their home. So, if you are killing someone in the context of a battle then, I think you could make a credible argument that you are complying with the laws of war and an internal conflict is a war. So that is not really a distinguishing factor, but I do not think, from what I know about these attacks, that they really are being carried out on a battlefield and if you are killing someone in their home or you are killing someone in a place like a wedding - that is an extrajudicial execution.
Now, we do not see any attempt being made by anyone to try to arrest these people, maybe you could make the argument that it is impossible to even try to, but I do not think you can make that argument in Pakistan because in Pakistan the army has a very strong presence in the Northwest Frontier province. So, that is how I analyze the situation and I also...
What is your response to that Mr. Wolf? Our guest (Stewart Stogel) there, is saying that this can be considered legal in his opinion because we are not seeing the International Criminal Court or the UN Security Council talking action on it.
Well, the UN Security Council does not punish war crimes and the International Criminal Court conceivably could, but they do not take very many cases, they tend to large cases, many, many years after..., that is what the International Criminal Court is designed to do.
I think we can really just look at the situation itself and say is this a war crime or not and not say: Well, no one has not done anything about it, so that it is not a war crime.
So you have got to look at the circumstances of the attack. Is the person who was killed in the middle of hostilities, are they on a so-called battlefield?
That concept is difficult these days because we do not really have battlefields anymore but if someone is killed in a wedding and I think that is the paradigm situation, someone is killed in a wedding and 20 or 30 other people are killed at the same time - that actually could qualify as a terrorist attack because the purpose appears to be to scare a lot of people and for the public effect that it will have to discourage the people from being seen anywhere in public with a known leader of one of these groups.
So, you look at the circumstances of the attacks, now Yemen is one thing, Pakistan is a much more troubling situation because in Pakistan we have a very difficult lack of accountability on all sides. We do not have a legal basis for the United States to conduct any operations in Pakistan. We are not at war with Pakistan, the other guest mentioned the UN Security Council, they do authorize conflicts, international peacekeeping operations; the UN did not authorize the US to go in there and do any peacekeeping in Pakistan and the United States will sometimes assert a defense of self-defense and say: Well, if we do not kill them over there, then they will come here and kill us.
I do not think that that actually works in this case because first of all, we are going after people who are trying to overthrow the Pakistani government; these are the Masoods and the militant groups that are solely within Pakistan and the groups that are in Afghanistan, who flee the US military there into Pakistan...; there are already pretty clear laws of war about that called Hot Pursuit that define to what extent you can chase them into another foreign country.
So, those are all well-known principles of war and there are aspirations that we should all hope that our militaries comply with the laws of war, but when you simply have a list of people and there are some unknown process, the people in the CIA, apparently, are drawing up these lists. The CIA are not lawful combatants by the way, they do not qualify as lawful combatants, they have no business killing anyone. But you have these targeted list of people and we, basically, kill them anywhere.
Ok, Mr. Wolf what do you think about the effectiveness of these strikes? Do you think the reason why we are seeing these strikes continue is because that they have actually been effective?
It is so hard to tell cause and effect..., it is so hard to tell why things happen in the world. We see two different things and we say this happened because that happened, and a lot of it is just based on our personal opinion. I do think that over time we have seen a number of these so-called Islamic extremists multiplying rapidly.
I will tell you a story, last year I had the opportunity to meet with Richard Reid, the so-called Shoe Bomber, in his prison cell in Colorado and I sat with him for a day and, you know, if you ask him Richard why did you do this? Why did you want to blow up an airplane with a bomb in your shoe? He will explain political reasons for that and there is no doubt that Richard Reid is a very devout Muslim, half the time I talked to him he talked about his religious views, but the motivation is certainly not a religious motivation, the motivation is a political motivation that people believe that they are under attack and they have to defend themselves.
This goes in any war. Many of the combatants join into these kinds of groups because of something very personal that happened to them. So, if you have a person who has been killed in your family and you feel that you have not gotten justice, then you join one of these groups and you fight even if you know that you are going to die. That is what drives these people to these extremes, is to believe that they have to do that to defend themselves.
So I think that you can just look ...; if you talk to the people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you know, the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan, they are afraid of these drones, that is absolutely unanimous in that part of the country that anyone believes that they could be killed by a bomb dropping out of the sky at any time.
So, I do not know, even if we are killing lots of people who are trying to overthrow the Pakistani government you have to also look at the social effect and to actually measure that, I am not sure that anyone actually has done an accurate measurement of that.
My sense would be that if you are killing people who are widely perceived in the community as being innocent, people who are known to other people and even the person who is targeted is known, and the community leaders in that part of the world have tremendous respect, if they are told, the Maliks are told that this person was innocent, you know, he is not a part of this terrorist group, then the entire community is going to turn against you.
So we see this spreading out all across the world, all across Africa, even in Mali, as the most recent one, and I do not really believe that this is a kind of a theological spread of a militant type of Islam.
It is that more and more people believe that they are being targeted and they have to defend themselves. So, that is part of any counter-insurgency strategy.
Mr. Wolf go ahead. Do you think that the response is actually proportionate and it is basically the militants, who are using human shields, who are responsible for the civilian casualties?
Well, I think you have got to address this point yourself that all of these groups from Mali to Somalia to Afghanistan, Pakistan, these are different groups. This is not one group and all of these people, generally speaking, are fighting their own political battles for control of their own countries. They happen to be Islamic countries, but they are not united with each other in any way.
So, you are right, that in any war the use of force is supposed to be proportional, it is supposed to take measures to limit the number of civilian casualties. I think your other guest makes a very valid point that the United States is at least trying to do that most of the time, but I think also, in any war, let us not be naïve, there is also an element of scaring the civilian population and that goes back to the Vietnam war, to Iraq, Afghanistan, we have nighttime raids, we have commandos going into peoples’ houses and killing people, people disappear without a trace and that psychological effect is a very important component in any war.
So let us not be naïve and think that we are the good guys and we do not commit war crimes. Everybody commits war crimes in wars and that is why really, the use of force and the use of aggression and the fact that there is a war in the first place, that is the crime that includes all of the other crimes and that is why we should resort to the use of force and declarations of wars as a last resort.