A call to halt targeted, lethal drone strikes


By Kent Ferris

As director of Social Action for the Diocese of Davenport, I recently participated in the first national Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare in Princeton, N.J. I knew something of the topic having read updates from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and their Committee on International Justice and Peace (CIJP).


Until recently, Bishop Richard Pates of the Des Moines Diocese served as the committee’s chair. I had been following his international travels with great interest, knowing that they were to countries often in the news, those affected by war, famine, natural disasters or some combination thereof.

And within the past month or so, I had viewed the documentary “Unmanned:  America’s Drone Wars.”  It included firsthand accounts of those who had been injured or whose loved one were killed during drone strikes, those who were not the primary human targets for such strikes. The documentary contains a reference to a phenomena experienced by children in areas where drone attacks have occurred, how they experience fear and anxiety on sunny days because that is when it is understood that drones are more likely to fly and strike.


Fortunately for me in anticipation of the conference, and actually for all of us, Bishop Pates and CIJP have given great thought to this issue, bringing in experts to discuss moral questions related to the use of armed drones in targeted killings to combat terrorism. Following the recommendation of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Bishop Pates then wrote to National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon and key congressional leaders raising significant moral concerns and questions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church were cited. Important moral concerns were raised regarding the following concepts:

  • Imminence:  Applying deadly force without clear evidence of an imminent attack is contrary to both the rules of just war and international humanitarian law.
  • Discrimination:  “Collateral damage” in war, when serious efforts are made to use proportionate and discriminate force, may be justified, but innocent civilians living outside war zones should not be subject to attack.
  • Proportionality/Probability of Success:  Several analysts have noted that the use of targeted killings using drones can reinforce a community’s sense of vulnerability and injustice, fueling anti-American hostilities.  A proper understanding of proportionality and probability of success in counterterrorism would elevate the bar against the use of deadly force and call for a much wider range of economic, political and diplomatic responses to threats posed by extremists.

Bishop Pates, on behalf of CIJP, asked the Obama Administration to appreciate the responsibility to demonstrate leadership in advancing international norms, standards and restrictions on the use of unarmed vehicles (UAVs) in counter-terrorism. He added hope that concerns expressed by the church regarding the use of UAVs and targeted killings would contribute to the formulation of a more comprehensive, moral and effective policy.

Justice is common to all faiths. The Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare brought together religious leaders, scholars and community activists from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Sikh faith communities who brought even more specificity to policy formulation. Following presentations, interfaith prayer and discussions the conference adopted a set of policy recommendations including a call “on the Administration to immediately halt the targeted lethal drone strikes. Further the Administration must be transparent and accountable on the past use of such strikes by public disclosures including but not limited to:  a) acknowledging strikes conducted, b) accounting for victims, c) explaining official criteria for selection of persons targeted, d) disclosing all legal justification for authorization of strikes, e) detailing the methods of investigating deaths, and f) disclosing the standards for compensating victims.”

This was all a great experience and example about how our faith can systematically respond to a serious moral issue and how we can work by consensus with other faiths to more effectively influence policy- makers to achieve peace through justice.

(Kent Ferris is director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Davenport).


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