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Terrorism and Security

Drones were among the most popular Christmas gifts in 2014 — so popular, in fact, that British authorities warned recreational drone users to make sure to use their toys lawfully, or to expect hefty fines. Similarly, the US FAA released a video just before the holidays, teaching aspiring drone users how to “stay off the naughty list”. More and more people are becoming familiar with drones as the number of ‘hobby droners’ (yes, this is a term) grows. Businesses are discovering drones as well: drones carry mistletoe in restaurants (with questionable results), or are used to give real-estate buyers a better view of their property. Beyond this, hundreds if not thousands of commercial drone users are waiting in the wings for a few last technical details to be figured out (especially sense-and-avoid technology) and for the implementation of legal regulations allowing drones to share airspace with manned aircraft. These developments are exciting, but they are also interesting for those working with military drones. The widespread use of drones for commercial purposes is likely to increase awareness about the history and the many applications of drones, which may help to overcome their exclusive association with targeted killings.

On 18 July 2014 the world awakened to yet another tragedy: the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight HM17 over pro-Russian separatist territory of Ukraine, which in its horrendous totality shocked the collective conscience of the public. Claims of responsibility for the tragedy spread over the then innocuous social media portal, Twitter, and instantly internationalized what had been perceived as a largely domestic conflict. What gradually came into view was the deployment of Twitter as a propaganda tool and a means for nefarious communication, subject to virtual deletion and emendation for the purposes of advancing a military objective and a political cause. References to tweets and videos bearing an imprint of responsibility were invoked in the Security Council’s emergency meeting hours later, where the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, cited them in her impassioned speech. This raises a legal conundrum, namely, what is the legal status of a boastful Twitter confession by separatist leaders of a state-sponsored rebel group containing first-hand accounts and admissions of responsibility for shooting down a plane in the midst of a conflict? Are tweets a novel form of incriminating evidence in a rapidly changing terrain of modern warfare? What ought to be their evidentiary value and legal status under international criminal law, international law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law? Finally, what criminal liability should those claiming responsibility bear under domestic and international law?

There are two stories in the media this week that touch on the nature of a free society. The first is headline news in the major newspapers and television networks, while the second is largely relegated to the Buzzfeed-esque websites. I’m referring to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were killed by alleged Islamic terrorists, and that Mia Khalifa has become the most popular porn star on the internet’s more saucier websites. If people make a connection between the two stories it will probably be Islam. Charlie Hebdo is well known for courting controversy by offending the religious, especially Muslims. The attack is presumably motivated by their publication of cartoons featuring Mohammed and general mockery. Ms Khalifa, as someone who works in pornography, no doubt offends a wide array of people from anti-pornography feminists to the intuitively prudish. However, she has attracted a great deal of abuse online, including death threats, because she is a Lebanese-American and many people in the Levant take exception to her career on religious grounds.

Israeli diplomacy faces a challenge: on the one hand, it has to project an image of Israel as a powerful country; on the other, it has to project an image of Israel as a vulnerable country. Striking the right balance between the two is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing Israeli diplomacy. Israel has to convey an image of power to deter and an image of vulnerability to convince. Israel is both powerful and vulnerable; conveying such an image to an international audience, often impressed by images devoid of context, is a particularly daunting task.

There is a tendency, even among scholars, to view civil wars as involving two actors—the “government” and “rebels.” This presumption likely arises because historical civil wars that have received the most attention—such as the American and Chinese civil wars—were generally fought between two recognized, organized combatants. Yet, many civil wars (both historical and modern) involve more than two actors. Take the current civil war in Syria. The Syrian government battles a series of rebel groups that generate a large number of acronyms—ISIS, SLA, SIF, and so on—and that frequently fight amongst themselves. These groups often seek to form coalitions to coordinate their opposition, but the coalitions are unstable and have difficulty controlling their constituent parts. The Syrian conflict also has a large level of external involvement, with the government receiving direct military support from Iran and Hezbollah plus a large number of additional external states and non-state actors seeking to turn the course of the war. The Syrian opposition’s fragmentation is extreme, but the multiparty nature of the conflict is by no means unique. In fact, many of the wars that have received the most international attention in recent decades—such as in Afghanistan, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Palestinian conflict in Israel, the Darfuri war in Sudan, and Somalia—have involved several rebel groups and significant external involvement.

This question is a little provocative so a clarification is in order. There is a distinction between whether a war is just (jus ad bellum) and whether it is being conducted in a just manner (jus in bello). In the case of IS it is incontrovertible that there is just cause for war. I have argued elsewhere that what is happening in IS occupied territory is attempted genocide. This legitimises military intervention, especially since the Iraqi government has requested help. What I wish to examine here is whether this war is being conducted justly. Just war theory provides us with several principles that limit what is morally permissible in war. There are two principles that give us cause for concern when assessing the intervention against IS: proportionality and non-combatant immunity. The first of these is the idea that the means of war must be proportional to the ends. Soldiers should aim for victory, but this does not mean that victory can be pursued by any means necessary. There must be, to use Michael Walzer’s term, an ‘economy of force’ (Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 129-33). A general should not waste the lives of his soldiers in a bloody offensive when there are more economical means to victory. He should not resort to tactics that will produce longstanding bitterness and prolong the war (such as taking no prisoners).

Last week, the UK government voted, by a huge majority of 481 MPs, to engage in military action in Iraq. Now, once again, we are effectively at war in the Middle East. For anyone committed to humanitarian inclinations, military force – so easily legitimated through hyperbolic statements of threat, and dramatic images of missiles precisely destroying targets through an aircraft’s gun-sights – should be treated with deep scepticism. Yet the tendency to reflexively reject and virulently condemn military action out of hand is no less lacking in critical reflection than the mindless swallowing of hawkish hyperbole. The international community has rightly been condemned for standing by and allowing genocide to occur in Rwanda in 1994, and in Darfur in 2003. Is this a similar case? The unfolding and deepening disaster in Iraq seems very much of our own making; so will inaction make us again culpable in unspeakable human suffering? Or is the impulse to fight mere atavistic “war fever”?[1] To answer these questions we need to interrogate two more: first, is the threat of ISIS as great as is claimed? And second, will military action do any good?

Recently I had a chance to visit the Christian community of Tur Abdin in Eastern Turkey, a long standing community. The monasteries where I stayed dated to the 5th century AD. The people are generous and welcoming, but there is certainly a feeling of isolation and anger in the community as well. You can see Syria stretching out in the distance from the Mor Hananyo Monastery. The people have family and friends in Syria and Iraq. These are the Christians who have been subjected to the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) along with the Yazidi, Shabak and Shia people of the region. Yet, this is nothing new to the people of Tur Abdin. The monasteries, with their austere beauty and clockwork way of life, give the impression of tranquility. The reality is that this region of the world has been subjected to repeated instances of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. All but one of the people I spoke about the region and its history had lost family in the pogroms of the late 19th century, the terrible bloodletting that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, down to the recent conflict between Ankara and the Kurds. Violence is woven into the historical fabric of life in Tur Abdin. The people are horrified and scared of what is happened a few kilometers from their homes, but they do not expect anyone to help. They’ve seen this before. The international community condemns, prevaricates and retreats. Admittedly, things are starting to happen. Airstrikes against IS have escalated and now include strikes in Syrian territory. Greater assistance is being given to the Kurdish Peshmerga, moderate Syrian forces and the Iraqis. However, this is insufficient. The world needs to decisively intervene in this conflict because the Islamic State is attempting to commit genocide against the minorities in their territory and we all have an obligation to stop them.