The Oxford Union Society, the famous debating society founded in 1823 with a membership drawn largely from the University of Oxford, held a debate on the motion “This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective” on April 25. University Professor Jeremy Waldron was one of three participants arguing against the proposition, while three opponents supported it. The anti-drone side for which Waldron argued carried the motion overwhelmingly, 154-86.

Jeremy WaldronWaldron, who was the last debater to make his case, asserted the need to look beyond the specific technology of drone warfare to the practices that surround it. He explained that it “involves the maintenance of a secret death list by government authorities...under circumstances of secrecy, unaccountability, lack of transparency, and a serious failure of the rule of law.”

He also suggested that the use of drones entailed “an expansion of the targets so that we are targeting not just...combatants who are carrying weapons, but we are increasingly targeting political leadership of these organizations including preachers, propagandists, people like Anwar al-Awlaki, recruiters perhaps.” Waldron added that the practice seemed to require a geographic expansion of covert activity as well, into “territories that are not initially defined as a theater of operations.” Finally, he said, the identity of the participants was an issue: “Drone warfare is conducted by unlawful combatants—that is, CIA people who are not in the military chain of command, who are not subject to military ethics—and that has been a very, very sore bone of contention in the critique of the practice.”

Waldron pointed out that U.S. engagement in drone warfare made the practice fair game for use by others. “When you acknowledge or maintain that a particular form of warfare, a new form of warfare, is legitimate, you can’t just maintain that for yourself,” he said. “You have to accept that it would be legitimate in the hands of your opponents, or in the hands of any country that was engaged in hostilities.... I think when you look at it from that perspective, pulling back a little bit from our anxieties about terrorism and our particular phobias about the United States, you have to imagine a world of death lists and death squads. I don’t think that’s the sort of world, even in the terrible terrain of warfare, that we want to allow.”

Watch Jeremy Waldron's argument (10 min):

Posted on May 7, 2013