THE BLOG
10/23/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Religious Community Skeptical of Lethal Drones

Since 2004, the United States, through the CIA, has conducted an estimated 400 or more drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Four of those strikes occurred just last month. Thousands of people have been killed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, including hundreds of civilians and at least four U.S. citizens. These are targeted killings with collateral consequences conducted remotely in countries against which we have not declared war. The religious community is asking whether the use of such drone warfare is legal or moral.

For more than a year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace studied the use of drones and targeted killings. In May 2013, Bishop Richard Pates, chair of the International Justice and Peace Committee, wrote to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, raising moral questions about the use of drones for targeted killings. He asked that the U.S. be more transparent in its policies and exercise leadership in advancing international agreements on their use.

In an op-ed originally published in the Washington Post, Bishop Pates shared the Catholic bishops' concerns about drone warfare, raising the point that "The distance many people feel from this issue doesn't reduce the ethical concerns involved, nor does it make the negative impact of drone usage any less severe." Similar concerns have been raised by other denominations and faith groups as well.

In an effort to address the serious questions that have emerged about lethal drones, in January, a diverse group of denominations, faith groups and religious organizations will gather for the first ever religions gathering on this issue, the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare.

The conference will seek to examine why the issue of drone warfare is an urgent moral issue today -- more than 10 years since the first people were killed by U.S. drones as part of the war on terror. The religious community will look at the technology used, the impact on innocent civilians, the disparity in risk between the target and the operator, and the fact that using drones may make the decision to go to war easier.

It is time to examine the nature and use of drones, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, the possibility of more nations and non-state actors acquiring them and how they are unique and different from other weapons.

There are important domestic and international legal concerns: What current laws, if any, either domestic or international, govern the use of drones? Are these laws being applied and obeyed?

Legal questions about the U.S. use of drones remain unanswered: What is the specific authorization for the Administration's use of drones? If it is the Authorization for Use of Military Force, adopted by Congress in September 2001 that provides blanket authority for the use of "all necessary and appropriate force" against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and affiliated forces, should that authorization be repealed or amended to be more limited and specific? The conference will examine if Congress should have a greater role in the authorization and oversight of lethal drones and targeted killings.

Why do people of faith care about the use of lethal drones? Within the interfaith community, there are several positions about war and peace: Just War, Just Peace and Pacifism. The conference will explore how each of these would approach drone warfare.

We will discuss if and when the assassination of people on a targeted list is legal and moral. What criteria should be used to be put someone on the list and who determines who should be on the target list?

We will also examine how governments that cause such killings should respond to civilian casualties including paying reparations to the families of those killed or wounded by drones.

An important question for all of us is whether or not lethal drones advance the U.S. war against the violence of non-state actors. Are U.S. drone strikes actually inciting further anti-American sentiment and encouraging more recruits for Al-Qaeda and other non-state actors? What are the effects on drone operators?

Currently, the CIA is engaged in the military operations of drone warfare as well as collecting intelligence about how they might be used. The conference will consider if the CIA should only collect intelligence and not actually be involved in carrying out drone warfare.

What should we do instead? We will consider other steps that the U.S. could take to stop the violence by non-state and state actors.

The goal of the Princeton conference is to bring denominations and religious organizations together to honestly consider the use of lethal drones and then make policy recommendations to the U.S. government. We will seek to determine what the religious community can do about lethal drones at each level: congregations, regional bodies, ecumenical and interfaith bodies and national bodies.

All people of faith are invited to participate in this unprecedented conference on lethal drones. The conference will be held January 23-25 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Inquiries can be directed to rkillmer@richardkillmer.org.