They can stay in the air for more than 24 hours - controlled remotely from the ground, and they fly where terrorists are suspected. In the past few days, the unmanned high-tech aircraft known as drones have been making headlines in the US, as well as in Europe. Almost daily, new aspects of remote-controlled killing are emerging in the debate. It has now become known that Saudi Arabia has housed a secret base for US drones for two years. Iran, meanwhile, has published aerial photographs that the country alleges came from a US drone. The Iranians say they intercepted the unmanned RQ-170 aircraft along the border with Afghanistan in December 2011.
Because of the use of drones, John Brennan, President Obama's closest counterterrorism adviser and nominee for head of the CIA, had to listen to harsh criticism from senators and vociferous protesters during his confirmation hearings.
Above all, it is the number of innocent victims that critics object to. According to the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, about 3,000 people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, including at least 470 civilians. The victims include American citizens, such as the radical Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 in an attack in Yemen. In 2010, a German citizen known solely as Bünyamin E. in press reports was killed by a US drone. He had traveled to a mountainous region in northwest Pakistan, an Islamist stronghold.
People in Germany have voiced numerous ethical concerns over the use of drones. "If the decision over life and death is handed over to a computer, no one is responsible in the end for the people who are dying," said Niklas Schörnig, a peace researcher at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Studies, in an interview with DW. In this way, Schörnig believes the officer who launches the drone, but does not fire the weapon, can distance himself from the act just as easily as the programmer.
'Death sentence without a trial'
The use of drones with missiles is highly controversial under international law. From the American perspective, the country is in an armed conflict against Al-Qaeda, Schörnig said. The reasoning: Because Al Qaeda operates worldwide, it is necessary to take action globally against the terror network.
But European international law rejects these arguments.
"Such attacks happen in a legal vacuum," Wolfgang Neskovic told RBB public televison. Neskovic, a legal expert and independent member of the German parliament, who until recently represented the Left party, said, "International law contains no legal basis for the killing of alleged terrorists outside a combat situation. In the case of Pakistan, for example, so far no western country has officially announced that it is a war zone or that this is an armed conflict within the meaning of international law."
Neskovic added that the targeted killing of suspected terrorists is like "a death sentence without trial."
These accusations have gathered strength thanks to a new paper published by the US government. Television station NBC has already published a short form of the report, which shows how the rules for the killing of US citizens can be laid down. According to the document, it is sufficient if the government determines that the US citizen has been involved in relevant "activities."
Schörnig is not surprised by that statement. On the one hand, the US government insists that it uses restraint when approaching the targeted killing of terrorists and has so-called kill lists, which the president must authorize personally. But, Schörnig adds, "If you look at the extent of drone attacks on suspected Al-Qaeda members in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, you can see that these were always much more extensive than the American rhetoric suggests."
Little protection against hacking
Götz Neuneck, of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, is especially critical of the White House's information policy, saying, "There is a lack of transparency in this sector. We do not really know anything. Who is now making what decision and on what basis?"
But the drones also pose a risk on the American side. On Thursday, Iranian state television showed highly sensitive aerial photographs, allegedly taken by an American drone. For Schörnig, the technology is underdeveloped, primarily for economic reasons: "If you ask whether these systems are protected against tampering and hacking, you would have to say not very well. Commercial products are installed for cost reasons in many drone systems, sometimes even commercial software. That always provides opportunities to disrupt and intervene," he said.
Launch rights threatened
The revelation of the secret base in Saudi Arabia could also have unpleasant consequences for the US. Schörnig says the long period of secrecy was also out of consideration for the local leadership.
"This is obviously a problem for the Saudi government when the drones, which target Muslim fighters for killing, are launched from a Muslim country. This can lead to resistance and problems in the population," he says. It is possible that other countries could now refuse to grant the US launching rights for the drones.
In addition, Schörnig adds, "There are studies that clearly show that the population at home considers this type of warfare unethical," Neuneck said. The drones are invisible and kill seemingly indiscriminately. In the regions where drones have flown over, that leads to trauma and terror."