Obama’s Human Rights Legacy


Given the wildly inaccurate nature of unmanned drone strikes, it is not surprising that such attacks result in a startlingly high number of civilian deaths. In fact, a study found that for every Pakistani terrorist killed via drone strike, forty-nine civilians were killed in the process. While death is of course a part of war, stringent efforts should be made to minimize to the greatest extent possible the number of noncombatant casualties. Recent successful drone strikes, however, have strengthened the pro-drone argument that such attacks offer an effective alternative to the deployment of ground troops. Despite such arguments, there exists an obvious humanitarian issue with the use of drones.

First and foremost, drone attacks are simply not precise, and therefore result in a high level of “collateral damage,” or civilian deaths. This fact, in addition to generating anti-American resentment among the global population, is also a political threat to the Obama Administration. Obama’s foreign policy track record is not wholly unimpressive, marked as it is by the strategic pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Nonetheless, presidents are accountable not just for their foreign policy successes, but for their failures as well. The disproportionate insurgent-civilian death ratio signals a foreign policy failing. The White House recently distributed an internal memo rationalizing its use of unmanned drones.  Since its release by NBC the memo has drawn criticism; many see it as falling far short of full justification.

The memo justifies killing an American citizen abroad in cases where he or she constitutes “an imminent threat” and capture is not realistic. The only real stipulation on this claim is that the attack must be carried out so as to be “consistent with applicable law of war principles.” The problem, of course, is deciding just what precisely constitutes an imminent threat, when capture would be impracticable, and whether drone strikes are in fact in line with the principles of war.  There is also the question of the appropriateness of a government applying “war principles” to its citizens, including the execution of American citizens absent the due process guaranteed by the constitution.

In a further complication for the Obama Administration, many critics point out that Obama has yet to actualize his promise of permanently shutting down the infamous Guantanamo Bay. Significantly, Daniel Fried, who had been the specially assigned envoy in charge of closing the Guantanamo facility, has been reassigned to a different task and will not be replaced. This may well signify to all what many have already concluded: Guantanamo will remain open. Taken together, the use of imprecise drones, the allowance of killing US citizens deemed a national threat through drone strikes, and the inaction regarding Guantanamo Bay constitute a very real threat to the Obama Administration’s human rights legacy. Naturally, there’s still time for a change of course, as it is still early in Obama’s second term. The human rights track record is still in the making.