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Have Drones Put an End to 'Just Wars?'

Have Drones Put an End to ‘Just Wars?’
In this third Level Talk program on drones, we frame our discussion on whether drone warfare has changed the concept of warfare. No longer, it is argued in this program, is warfare to do with the age-old principles of "Just war", enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties.

Laurie Calhoun, the author of the influential book: ‘We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age’ joins the program, along with Dr. Peter Lee, Reader in Politics and Ethics at the University of Portsmouth.

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Dr. Lee expounds the main tenants of what is commonly believed to be ‘Just War Theory,’ and reduces the theory down to two main ideas – justifying the reasons for going to war in the first place and establishing guidelines of how such a war is fought. He admits that the theory has changed a lot over the course of history. Laurie Calhoun also believes that the concept of a "just war" has changed dramatically over the course of time, to the point of no longer being relevant, but ‘Just War Theory’ is still used as a propaganda tool to persuade people to support the institution of war. She provides an example – the Geneva Convention states that unarmed combatants should be given the chance to surrender rather than be exterminated without trial or the chance to defend themselves. With drone warfare, this concept has been forgotten about thanks to the invention of ‘immediate threats.’

Calhoun says that present day leaders feel they can now wage war wherever they see a potential threat developing, and do not seek permission to fire missiles on people, as they should do under article 51 of the UN Charter of nations, which governs self-defense. Dr. Lee, however, argues that there is a clear difference between the way that drones are used by different sections of the US forces and by different nations’ armed forces. The relevance of this is debated by Laurie Calhoun and the host John Harrison who point out that it only takes one rogue state to use drones in an indiscriminate way; be it the US or a smaller country, to reduce drone warfare to the level of weapons used in a ‘Holy War’ where no rules at all are abided by. Even the UK, Calhoun points out, has not been consistent in its use of drones.

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Another major topic of discussion concerns whether drones allow states to engage in warfare with another state without actually going to war. Dr.Lee points out that drones are actually quite limited in their application as they cannot be used in countries where there are advanced air defenses. A debate ensues between Dr. Lee and host John Harrison about what the nature of war is; the former stating that war is a struggle between two opposing forces and the latter arguing that war is now heavily informed by technology which now has the power to define who the enemy is. In this context, Laurie Calhoun argues that technology does allow smaller countries to engage in warfare, particularly in domestic context, in ways that they could not previously do. Dr. Lee continues this debate by pointing out that in the Vietnamese war, all the technology the Americans had at their disposal, could not help them win against a people with virtually no technology, and therefore that technology is important but not the only important factor. Laurie Calhoun argues that drones are also relatively cheap, and do not require the sacrifice of soldiers, and this is why such ‘smart wars’ are so popular. Dr. Lee argues that drones are in fact expensive and demand a very sophisticated infrastructure, which very few states can support.

The program ends with a discussion on whether the rules of war themselves need to be rewritten, in the light of technological development. Dr. Lee interestingly reports that States do not want to reopen the Geneva Conventions because they have no wish to tighten them up, they want to water them down.

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