Mourners carry the body of a father killed by a drone strike in Gaza. Photograph: Getty Images
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Drone attacks go against every human rights principle in the book

There is a sense that international law has failed.

It has for centuries been lawful to kill enemy commanders, on the principle that “a man who is dead renews no war”, a thought that comforted Cromwell as he viewed the body of Charles I. The outcry in the 1970s over comical CIA plots to murder Fidel Castro by sending him exploding cigars and poison pens led Congress to ban political assassinations under Executive Order 12333: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” This comports with the Fifth Amendment to the US constitution, which protects “any person” (not just US citizens) from being “deprived of life . . . without due process of law”.

Until 9/11, the legal position was clear: in war, active combatants could kill and be killed, subject to rules governing surrender, use of banned weapons, etc. But “war law” applied only to conflicts between armed forces of opposing states, invoking the right of self-defence. Confrontations with insurgents, rioters and terrorists were governed by human rights law, which requires state use of force against serious criminals to be reasonable in the circumstances. This is more restrictive – after three IRA bombers were shot dead on Gibraltar in 1988, the European Court held that the UK had denied them the right to life because MI5 had jumped to mistaken conclusions. In the case of known members of terrorist organisations, the “reasonable force” requirement exercises a necessary and humane restraint over the trigger-happiness of “special forces” and drone targeters. This is why the US, Russia and Israel pretend they are bound only by the law of war, which allows suspects to be killed without much compunction.

The states that deploy drones argue that they are operating under war law, where human rights are less relevant. As Harold Koh, legal adviser to the US state department, puts it: “The US is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda . . . and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defence . . . including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning to attack us.” This bald statement prompts many questions. How can you have “an armed conflict” without an enemy state? What criteria are used for putting names on the secret death list: is it enough to be sympathetic to terrorism, married to a terrorist, or anti-American? To provide shelter or give funds to terrorist groups? What is the required degree of proof? There are no accountability mechanisms – no inquests, sometimes not even a casualty list (although the US usually announces and celebrates when it hits a “high-value target”).

In drone warfare, there is no fairness or due process to enable the potential victim, his relatives or any outside body to challenge the accuracy of the information on which the targeting decision has been made. The Senate foreign relations committee reported in 2009 that the Pentagon’s approved list of “prioritised targets” contained 367 names and had been expanded to include 50 Afghan drug lords suspected of donating money to the Taliban. Suppose the suspicion was unreasonable, or the donation had been at gunpoint, or of a negligible amount? What the Pentagon is doing is secretly sentencing people to death for an unproven crime.

The Israeli Supreme Court is the only tribunal to have confronted the legality of targeted kill­ing, at a time (2008) when 234 victims had been members of Hamas and a further 153 had been civilians who got in the way. The court contented itself with comments about limiting the targets to dangerous terrorists and issued Polonius-like precautionary precepts: “well-based information is needed”; “innocent civilians are not to be harmed”; “careful verification is needed before an attack is made”. In reality, innocent civilians very often are killed, and “verification” always seems careful to the minds of the targeters.

Israeli officials seem morally content to risk civilian lives: after a one-tonne bomb was dropped on Gaza City in 2002, killing many civilians in order to assassinate the Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, an inquiry merely noted “shortcomings” in evaluation of information. This was a case of manslaughter by gross negligence. The CIA’s anxiety to kill the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri led to a drone attack in 2006 on a village in Pakistan where he was mistakenly thought to be hiding, and 18 civ­ilians were killed. There was no explanation, no accountability and no compensation for what the CIA calls a “decapitation strike”.

Koh says that drone strikes are an exercise in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. But Article 51 applies only to attacks (or imminent attacks) by other states, not by terrorist groups. Nobody has yet noticed the irony of squeezing terrorism into this war-law paradigm. Because the Geneva Conventions and customary rights must apply to terrorist and law enfor­cer alike, if it is lawful to kill Osama Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Hamas commanders, then it must be lawful for them to kill their opposite numbers – Barack Obama and Binyamin Netan­yahu, generals, allies. (Even the Queen, as head of a co-belligerent state, may qualify.) Those who take the lives of innocent civilians in order to spread terror deserve to be treated like dangerous criminals and shot down when necessity requires, not dignified in law as if they were warriors matched in combat with great states.
What is the position under human rights law? It would obviously be a breach of the right to life if terrorist sympathisers were targeted to deter others, or killed in circumstances where it was possible to arrest them. It would be reasonable to kill terrorists on missions to blow up civilians, or engaged in conspiracies to kill them. But the record of drone attacks demonstrates that often individuals are targeted when they constitute no clear or present danger.

Drone killings in tribal areas of Pakistan and in Yemen have taken the lives of targets who are armed and in conspiratorial meetings, but others have merely been attending weddings or funerals or emerging from hospitals or mosques. In Pakistan, there have been cases where pro-government leaders, their families and even army soldiers have been killed by mistake in drone attacks that have severely damaged US relations with a politically tense, nuclear-armed nation that is not at war with the US.

There was little protest in the US until last year, when a drone strike in Yemen targeted a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, rumoured to be al-Qaeda’s leader in that area. The rockets were fired at his pick-up truck, in which he might have been picked up rather than bombed. Obama’s lawyers said that the Fifth Amendment could not avail a US citizen who joined an enemy force. This is correct as far as it goes, but the Fifth Amendment must entitle a citizen or his family to know whether he is on a death list and to apply to have himself taken off it. When al-Awlaki’s father sought judicial review, the judge told him he did not have standing. If a father does not have standing to challenge a targeted killing, who does?

The Obama administration seems to have given the CIA carte blanche to choose targets, subject to the approval of Koh, a law professor, now an executioner. Those who press the Hellfire buttons in Nevada do not pause to consider whether their targets are engaged in combatant missions or not. But there is no point speculating about the criteria for listing or executing: these are secret CIA prerogatives, beyond the jurisdiction of the courts or the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

The battlefield utility of drone technology is such that it will be used widely in future conflicts, and by states much less scrupulous than the US and Israel (Syria and Iran, for example). Drones will become more compact, and more difficult to detect or shoot down – already there are plans for bird- and even insect-sized drones, capable of crawling inside homes or squatting on window ledges to listen and send “kill” messages to their bigger brethren without any “pilot” in Nevada pressing a button.

There is an urgent need for the US to make its drone operations more principled, first, by moving responsibility from the CIA to the department of defence, which is more accountable and bound by the Geneva Conventions. Second, there must be transparency in respect of both the target list and criteria for listing, and an opportunity for those listed to surrender or seek judicial review of whether the evidence against them proves they are an active combatant. Third, rules of engagement must exclude any killing if civilians are likely to be present, and finally, rules must prevent killing of a target who can be captured or arrested.

There is a sense that international law has failed: the UN Charter, the conventions and the norms of the courts have not provided satisfactory guidance for waging asymmetric warfare. Hence the silence of states and the recent earnest request, by the UN’s human rights commissioner, for urgent clarification of the law. The way forward may be to find a way back, to reasonable force and proportionality. At present, many drone killings can only be described as summary executions – the punishment of the Red Queen (“sentence first, trial later”), which denies the right to life, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.

Geoffrey Robertson QC’s full legal analysis of drone warfare is in his fourth edition of “Crimes Against Humanity” (Penguin, September 2012). Also in the New Statesman's Drones issue: Chris Woods on the legality of drones, Jemima Khan's interview with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Michael Brooks on the science that makes drones work

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster