Drones in Yemen; policy in Wellington – ‘conflation’ or global thinking?

The news on Wednesday that one of the people killed in a US drone strike over Yemen last year was a New Zealander came as sobering news.

The question of how to deal with international conflict in the 21st century, including the global terrorism, is fraught and arouses passions.  It evokes complex legal, moral and political issues.  Yet in the final analysis we are each obliged to make a single overall judgement on the issue – ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

So I asked a question of the Prime Minister in the House on today (Thursday).   This is the exchange.

The purpose of my question was to elicit the Government’s position on what is known by some as ‘extrajudicial killing’, in this case of a New Zealand citizen – and known by others as ‘targeted assassination’.  The reason I raised it in the House today was because a NZ citizen was killed. That gives it immediate national political concern.

But the activities of the individual in this case are extraneous to the principle.  The underlying issue is global.

And that is: what is the current state of international law, and political judgements underpinning it, and how might it keep pace with the change in military technology.

Currently, international law reflects the traditional distinction between a combatant and a civilian.  That reflects 17th-century to 20th-century armed conflict. With the diminution of inter-state warfare, armed conflict has trended to become sub-national (civil war) and trans-national (global instability/terrorism). And modern technology is allowing unmanned lethal platforms to become engaged in both.

And since 2001, some major powers (not all) are seeking to introduce a third category – ‘unlawful combatant’.   Such an individual seems not the have the right of due process.  But that is disputed and not (yet?) part of international law.

And so if an individual is not an armed combatant, then the legal dimension of killing him/her is now very uncertain and unclear.  Does international law apply, and/or humanitarian law and/or domestic human rights law?

Had I had more opportunity, I would have called for a study of this issue in New Zealand, to reflect what is starting to occur at the United Nations.

I am not saying the New Zealander was innocent or guilty of anything – that is a separate matter, something not explored through legal process by the US or New Zealand.

I am saying that the Government needs to be careful about how it responds to US drone killings, especially of its NZ citizens.

I thought it was an interesting exchange.  And I appreciated the level and considered response of the minister on behalf of the Prime Minister – given the seriousness of the matter.

But one area I would disagree with: I do not think the NZ Government can just shrug and dissociate itself from US actions in this issue, simply because we do not own drones.

Minister Joyce suggested that I was conflating US and NZ policy on an issue that was essentially confined to the US.

I disagree.  Drones are becoming part of international conflict – there are some 76 countries now that have them.   New Zealand, every country, has an obligation to form a view of the legitimacy/legality of their use in conflict and for surveillance.

This the Government steadfastly refuses to do.


8 Comments Posted

  1. I m very happy they got rid of the terrorist. Blame labour and the gweens for letting to many of these people into our country.Thanks for raising these topic .

  2. Hi Kennedy

    My eighty-something mum has been very impressed with you after seeing you on television during Parliament. I was impressed with your recent philosophising no the environment. You may be a secret weapon for the Greens to attract the older mainstream voter. I wonder if your public profile needs to rise a bit more outside of Parliament.

  3. Key is taking us down the same path that the USA has gone “legitimising” disregard for human rights by stealth. He has legitimised illegal surveillance of the public, sold off assets clearly against the will of NZ public and made a mockery of democracy. His NACT / business round table driven agenda complies with the direction transnational agents of extreme wealth interests have employed elsewhere.


    Do we accept what he has done and so make his next step to disenfranchise our NZ citizens even easier, or so we show open revolt.

  4. I find your comments more thoughtful than the reporting of them. Having said that I have no sympathy for a NZ’er who knowingly chooses to support a terrorist group further it’s aims through the exploitation of disaffected youth, children or women to strike at civilian targets.
    For decades there have been problems with terrorists committing atrocities and then skipping of to ‘sympathetic’ nations (eg Lybia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan etc) and effectively escaping international justice. London, Scotland, Madrid, and New York are well known examples.
    The advent of drones puts those terrorists within reach. If it comes to choice I greatly prefer targeted drone strikes on proven terrorists and their supply columns (as in this instance) over military incursions and all that implies.
    I do not see the NZ Govt’s lack of passion on this subject as condoning state sponsored murder, but rather an acknowledgement that this person had consciously put himself in harms way and that this was a logical outcome.
    You have to be deranged to think it is ok to enrol with a group that deliberately targets civilian populations.
    I have some sympathy for his family, but I still feel overall that one less hate filled terrorist is a good thing.

  5. I’m certainly not saying I like the idea of either nor claiming to understand the international law, but shouldn’t there be precedent for this type of thing in missile attacks which go back to at least the 1990s Gulf War or earlier?

    What’s the difference between firing a bunch of missiles at a targets from a warship hundreds (or thousands) of km away, and launching a drone from the same warship which is only different in that it can be more remotely controlled, and will return to base instead of exploding with the rest of the warhead?

  6. The extrajudicial killing by drone murder, is just one evil aspect that Obama uses from his Pentagon terror kit. No need for judges, juries or executioners – Obama deems you guilty so no trial necessary – he sentences you to death on Tuesday; along with the numerous other innocent civilians that particular drone murder will take with it. . .

    Barack Obama must be held to account for war crimes, crimes against humanity and terrorist activities that include: torture, the overthrow of numerous democratically elected governments around the world, killing of innocent civilians around the globe, men, woman & children held in detention deprived of their legal rights [ deprived of fair trial ] in violation of Geneva Conventions and so on.

    Washington is truly the dark beacon of evil, the biggest threat to humanity [ not withstanding Climate Change ] the World has ever known. The US is an Oligarchy not a Democracy, she is a failed State – a Police State, a rouge Nation. A War Nation out of control with the Military Industrial Complex and Banking elites reaping profits from the raping, pillaging and murder of others, in a never ending War Of Terror. The Nobel Peace Prize winner who has yet to earn his ‘prize’ is a war criminal following in the footsteps [ far outpacing his predecessors ] of G W Bush / Cheney / Rumsfeld et al, ultimately driving US hegemony to unprecedented levels.

    To say the United States of America is a shining beacon of liberty, giver of freedom and democracy; a purveyor and follower of the rule of law – a Nation awash with righteousness, flush with goodness and blessed exceptionalism – would be a lie read straight from talking points taken out of a Pentagon propaganda PowerPoint. Only true in some Hollywood blockbuster action flick / only real in the mind and belief system of a lap-dog Prime Minister residing in a tiny South Pacific Nation east of Australia who has a fawning crush on Amerika.

    The National Government chooses to stand side by side and support the US, but not in my name Mr Key – the blood is on your hands for continuing this special relationship with the Terrorist States of Amerika! We should not condone or support the violation of international law. Moreover, as a sovereign nation we should take no part in breaking international law.

  7. If any other government had killed a NZ citizen the reaction would have been different. Imagine if the Russians killed a NZer in Crimea. Even if a NZ citizen is sentenced to death abroad through due process they get consular assistance. This is a case when NZ should have at least issued a public “please explain”.

    For the US, it is all very well to treat terrorists and potential terrorists as enemies to be killed or locked up with no legal recourse, but then you are legitimising their own actions. If we kill them then they are justified in killing us. The only thing that protects us is that we are better at it.

Comments are closed.