TV program puts U.S. drone strikes on trial

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- To decide whether a U.S. drone strike is a violation of international human rights law, "World on Trial" viewers and jurors must decide whether an armed conflict exists. If the United States is engaged in an armed conflict, the law of armed conflict and its rules on imminence, distinction, necessity and proportionality apply; if not, then the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — which declares that every human being has the inherent right to life — governs the analysis.

The mock trial was filmed at Penn State Law in University Park on June 26. Presiding over the trial was Judge James E. Baker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, who participated in his personal capacity. Jurors heard from military experts, scholars, national security experts and a Yemeni man whose village was struck by a drone. Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy, led the challenge to the drone program. Michael Lewis, expert on the conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda, defended the drone program.

Notable moments from the trial included:

  •  A London-based group estimates that 4,000 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. Of that, 1,000 have been civilians and of those 300 have been children. The U.S. has provided no official statistics on drone strikes. — Jameel Jaffer, opening statement
  •  One rationale used by U.S. government to determine whether a drone strike can occur is that the location of the strike would be only in parts of the world which cannot be governed by law. Therefore, no strike would be considered in a place like Paris. — Michael Lewis, opening statement
  •  A Yemeni witness whose village had been struck by a U.S. drone said that not even 10 percent of the civilian casualties were acknowledged by the U.S.
  •  The current U.S. protocol is that the government will not authorize a drone strike if there is any expectation of civilian casualties. — Michael Lewis, opening statement.
  •  The U.S. government claims that it follows a target for three to four days or even a week to determine whether a person is a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). — Defense witness
  •  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that in Pakistan in the 1990s, 80 percent of casualties of war were civilians. Now, that number is about 2 percent. — Defense witness
  •  A drone is a weapons platform not a weapon per se. Its original use was for surveillance. — Defense witness

Juries worldwide will have the opportunity to render verdicts on the U.S. drone program and the program will be available nationwide on PBS stations. The first episode of "World on Trial" examined the 2004 French head scarf ban and is available at "World on Trial" is a production of Penn State Law, the Penn State School of International Affairs and WPSU. 

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Last Updated July 22, 2015