It didn’t take long. Just a day after President Trump was sworn in, a US drone strike was carried out in Yemen on his authority, killing three people. As usual, the individuals killed were reported as suspected Al Qaeda militants.
Like most drone bombings, there wasn’t much information available on this latest strike. The US government doesn’t publicly discuss specific strikes (unless Westerners were killed), and the general state of chaos prevailing in Yemen at the moment means there are very few journalists in the region that could investigate the strike first-hand. We’re left to rely on the claims of anonymous security and tribal officials, which serve as the source for the report above.
But while we don’t have all the facts on this particular case, we know enough to conclude that Trump probably just committed his first war crime.
- Initiating wars of aggression against another country–i.e. striking first
- Endangering or killing a disproportionate number of civilians relative to the military objective achieved
A ‘successful’ drone strike on Yemen likely fits both of those parameters.
For the first one, we should note that the country of Yemen has not committed any act of war against the US. Individuals from Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch have been connected to terrorist attacks in the US, but the country itself has not been involved in such attacks. Moreover, it cannot even be said that Yemen was giving safe haven to terrorists when those attacks occurred, which was the justification for the war against the Afghan government in 2001. In fact, Yemen’s government, until recently, was conducting its own internal War on Terror against Al Qaeda with the US’s participation.
If the US were still simply involved at the request of the Yemeni government, this in itself would not violate international law. However, Yemen’s governing situation has gotten considerably more complicated since then. The previous US- and Saudi-backed dictator was overthrown by a rebel group, known as the Houthis, and then Saudi Arabia launched a war to try to reinstall said dictator. That war started nearly two years ago and is still ongoing. The Houthis appear to have the most control and popular support in the country at this point, but Yemen still doesn’t have an established government in the way that most countries do.
All of which is the long way of explaining the US doesn’t have permission from Yemen’s government to intervene. In part, this is because it doesn’t have a normal government to grant such permission. And even if the Houthis could conceivably grant such permission, the US has taken Saudi Arabia’s side in the war against them, so that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. So when the US conducts airstrikes in Yemen, it is clearly a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and an act of aggression.
That brings us to the second category–endangering or killing a disproportionate number civilians relative to the military objective.
Under laws of war, killing is obviously allowed but some circumstances are still off-limits. Killing combatants in the midst of battle would be permissible. Bombing the military base of another country in the middle of a war would be allowed. Bombing military targets and killing civilians in the process, is also allowed under the laws of war, provided civilian harm is proportional to military objective (unsurprisingly, countries always seem to conclude the collateral damage caused was indeed proportional).
It is this last requirement that is routinely violated by the US in the drone assassination program.
The reason is that even the US government acknowledges, if only internally, that the assassination program serves essentially no military objective. Indeed, a leaked CIA study from 2009 noted that the drone strikes may not only be useless but actually counterproductive. In the words of the study, drone strikes “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.” Obviously, one or more of these conditions applies in essentially every drone strike. If the strike succeeds in hitting an actual terrorist, it creates a martyr, enhancing the “insurgent leaders’ lore.” If it kills civilians instead, then their family members become potential recruits for terrorist organizations.
So going off the CIA’s own assessment, drone assassinations achieve no meaningful military objective. It then follows that a proportional amount of civilian casualties associated with achieving that useless objective would be none at all.
As noted above, we don’t know whether the strike in question actually killed civilians. And since none of the slain went through any kind of due process, it’s tough to establish their crimes or perhaps even their identity. The lack of a meaningful US troop presence on the ground in Yemen means that the targeting is relying overwhelmingly on signals intelligence; in turn, this increases the likelihood that even the US government itself isn’t entirely sure who it targeted or killed in the strike. The combination of all this uncertainty means that drone strikes necessarily endanger civilian life and would appear to constitute a war crime as such.
Even if we generously assume for argument’s sake that this particular strike did not kill civilians, it would still be a war crime as an aggressive violation of Yemen’s sovereignty (the first type of war crime discussed above).
Based on the above, we can be confident in saying that Donald Trump became a war criminal on his first full day in office.
Of course, being a war criminal isn’t very unique among US presidents. But while Trump has limited notoriety in that regard, he may have set a new record with how quickly he accomplished it. President Obama didn’t get around to committing his first war crime (a drone strike in Pakistan) until his third full day in office.