Ahmed on Drone Attacks in Pakistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

Dawood Ismail Ahmed, a Pakistani lawyer and JSD candidate at the University of Chicago, has a very interesting article today at Foreign Policy on Pakistan’s opposition to drone strikes.  He argues that if Pakistan really wants to put an end to the strikes, which have killed hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians, it needs to start taking advantage of its options under international law.  Here is a taste:

[W]hy, despite all the noise about sovereignty in the eight years since the first drone strike in 2004, have two successive Pakistani governments, military and civilian, failed to hire a single lawyer to challenge drone strikes within the United Nations, a foreign court or even a local Pakistani court? To be sure, the government could argue that it is not completely ineffective against the drone attacks: it did recently close Shamsi air base to protest against the NATO strikes that killed Pakistani soldiers. It could also provide a few superficial defenses to justify inaction: Pakistan is a poor country and therefore cannot afford to engage international lawyers or organizations or that any such action will be futile in the face of U.S. hegemony. However, neither alibi can withstand scrutiny.

Pakistan has routinely employed resources on international legal matters when there is political will to do so. In 1999, Pakistan submitted a dispute to the International Court of Justice against India regarding an airspace incident. In 2009, Pakistan proposed a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council to prevent “defamation of religion” or blasphemy. Last year, Pakistan sought to engage the International Court of Justice in another dispute against India concerning water rights. And Pakistan, over the years, has invested significant resources to highlight the Kashmir problem at the U.N.

In fact, the Pakistani government does not even need to expend much money to raise the issue of drone strikes. A number of Pakistani lawyers are well versed in international law. Lawyers often take up cases pro bono and submit amicus briefs in support of a country’s case without charge. In fact, international human rights NGO’s working with local Pakistani lawyers; most notably, the British charity Reprieve, has been providing legal representation to civilian victims and commenced litigation against the British Foreign Secretary for assisting drone strikes.

Similarly, the argument that international legal discourse would be futile in constraining use of force by a superpower is equally unpersuasive. Any minimally competent government knows how international law can be utilized to decisively engage in “lawfare”, that is to challenge stronger opponents on the basis of legal argument.

It’s refreshing to see the word “lawfare” put in quotes.  Conservatives have done a masterful job turning the word into an epithet, even though nothing could be further from the truth.  Using the law to promote human rights and put an end to violence is an act to be celebrated, not condemned.


3 Responses

  1. It seems to me that conservatives – when using the term ‘lawfare’ – can only assume one or both of the following things:

    (1)    Legal arguments do not promote justice. They are only instruments to manipulate others in doing what you want.
    (2)    The legal systems do not select the best arguments, but give equal chances to win to the bad guy as to the good guy.

  2. Have there been any drone strikes since the Airbase was closed? 

    I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me the question would be, why did they continue to offer a base from which to launch those strikes? We have a German airbase in New Mexico and if they were bombing from that site and we had issue, we’d put a stop to the strikes, not send them supplies and continue to offer a launching pad while publicly condeming them. Furthermore, Pakistan’s defense air capability is pretty good….particularly when they know exactly where the strikes are launched from and it’s their own property.

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