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Saving Lives in Endless Wars

In response to:

Must It Always Be Wartime? from the March 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Rosa Brooks’s How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything [NYR, March 9], Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth focuses on the current use of the “law-enforcement standards” that US President Barack Obama laid out in 2013 on the use of aerial drones for killing terrorist suspects.

Mr. Roth highlights how difficult it is for many such raids to meet Mr. Obama’s rigorous standards, but he astonishingly does not venture anywhere near the fundamental question of whether US exercise of “law-enforcement” practices to launch attacks in a mounting number of countries might contradict international laws on sovereignty and armed conflict. His reluctance “to embark on any new attempt to set global standards on something as sensitive as counterterrorism policy” is understandable, but it does not absolve him, especially as the head of the world’s foremost human rights organization, from sidestepping the legal questions that leap out from these new military interventions.

That discussion of the legality of these new interventions is vital because the number of bases housing drones and the related deployment of special forces operations is proliferating. In the process, these US deployments are militarizing politics and societies in which they are based, especially in Africa, already the world’s most impoverished and least stable continent. Those concerned about human rights, justice, and the rule of law as the basis on which peace can flourish must use their forums to raise questions about these new interventions, which are far easier to employ and sustain than conventional wars. Otherwise, the Endless War Everywhere syndrome will turn the entire world into one vast armed camp.

Salim Lone
Former Director of Communications, UN Mission in Iraq (2003)
Former Spokesman and Senior Adviser to Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya (2007–2013
Princeton, New Jersey

Kenneth Roth replies:

Mr. Lone is correct that my review focused on only the law governing how US lethal force is used in places like Yemen and Somalia, not on the law governing whether, consistent with the sovereignty of the nation in question, US lethal force should have been deployed at all. How US force is used in such a situation is a question of international humanitarian law, such as that found in the Geneva Conventions, as well as international human rights law. Whereas the issue of whether a US military intervention is legitimate in the first place is a matter for the UN Charter and its requirement that military means be used to attack a sovereign nation only as an act of self-defense or as an intervention authorized by the UN Security Council.

In limiting my article to the first question—how force is being used—I was following the long-standing approach of not only my organization, Human Rights Watch, but also Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The reason we do not weigh in on whether an entire military intervention is legal is that it could quickly lead to the perception that we were taking sides in an armed conflict and thus diminish our ability to carry out our primary mission of protecting the lives of civilians and curbing specific attacks that unduly endanger them.

Moreover, application of the law governing when force can be deployed against a sovereign state would do little to address Mr. Lone’s concern about the proliferation of US military operations and the effect it has on societies, since, with the exception of Syria, all known US military operations today seem to be conducted with the consent of the government in question. One can properly question how meaningful or warranted that consent is—particularly whether it extends to the rules governing the use of lethal force that were the subject of my review—but the existence of consent means that the attack is not a violation of the nation’s sovereignty.