On the military beat: New facts of war meet rule of law

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2011 - 5:31 PM

Drones flying over Afghanistan piloted by guys with joysticks in Fargo. Enemies with no geographic boundaries they call home. Asymmetric warfare. Things sure have gotten complicated.

Advances in technology such as the use of drones and the lack of nation-states as combatants have not only changed the face of modern warfare but also the legalities of war, says Oren Gross, the director of the Institute for International Legal & Security Studies at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and now even the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have deliberately blurred the lines between civilian and combatant to even the odds in the fight with more powerful and sophisticated militaries.

"In the past, clearly wars were army to army," said Gross, recognized as an expert in national security law and international law. "But now it's hard to tell who is an insurgent and who is not, both because detection is hard, and because they know that if you try and hit them, the PR cost is going to be huge."

Beyond the moral issue of what Gross calls the "PlayStation mentality," the technological advances in using devices such as drones provide a benefit.

"You can hover overhead, see what they are doing, and target them when they are isolated from the civilian population. It does increase the accuracy and limit collateral damages." said Gross, who is preparing an article called "The Years of the Drone."

But their use raises new legal questions. Can the United States, for instance, justify increased drone attacks in Pakistan as self-defense against insurgents or as an extension of the response to the 9/11 attacks? Can drones be used to attack buildings in which leaders such as Gadhafi happen to be?

"Did we assassinate or did we just happen to hit the building he was in? If it is a civilian residence you cannot directly target it. It must have military value. It depends on which way you massage the facts," he said.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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