Drone wars blur the line between military and civilian combatants

A report in Foreign Policy in Focus looks at the blurring distinctions between civilian and combatant in America’s drone wars. Article 48, the ‘Basic Rule’ of Part IV of the 1977 Geneva Conventions states that  “In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian populations and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”  If civilians do partake in hostilities they lose their protected status: in effect they become combatants.  The relevance of this to drone warfare is that civilian CIA operators that assassinate America’s enemies could, in effect, lose their protection under the Conventions–and render other US citizens vulnerable, especially against a backdrop of an ever-expanding drone landscape. Could we all, in effect, become ‘fair game’?

Many countries have already stretched the Geneva Conventions to the breaking point with regards to civilians and the treatment of prisoners. For instance, by using the term “collateral” to describe civilian deaths, a country sidesteps the Convention’s stricture against “deliberate targeting” of civilians by claiming the damage was “inadvertent.” By calling insurgents “combatants” rather than “soldiers,” the U.S. has waterboarded people, thus finessing both the Conventions and the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.

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