Pakistani Sovereignty and the U.S. Drone Program

MQ-9 Reaper Drone on a training mission.

MQ-9 Reaper Drone on a training mission.

Ben Emmerson, the leader of a United Nations team investigating the U.S. drone program in Pakistan yesterday said that Pakistan “does not sanction” U.S. drone strikes in the northern part of the country. The statement, made following a recent visit to Pakistan, came as a bit of a surprise. According to Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, “The position of the Pakistani government is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The UN team was struck in January and is not expected to publish its conclusions until October. Yet if Emmerson’s comments are any suggestion, it appears likely the UN team will find the program a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Officially, the Pakistani government has repeatedly objected to U.S. drone strikes in the country, which have killed an estimated 3,460 people since 2004, the vast majority under President Barack Obama’s tenure in office. Privately, however, many observers believe that the program depends on the tacit consent—and indeed, the support—of the Pakistani government. Classified documents released in 2010 by WikiLeaks suggest that Pakistani military and intelligence officials have given approval to the U.S. program, but publically criticize the program.

So is the program a violation of Pakistani sovereignty? It’s a more difficult question that first appears. Sovereignty can be defined in several ways but is generally thought of as exercising independent or autonomous control over a given territory. This control is usually thought of as the ability to enact binding decisions, or laws, and to rule over the people in that territory. In practice, the principle of sovereignty is never as clear cut as the theoretical definition suggests. Many countries, particularly those in the global south, claim legal sovereignty over their territory but often lack the ability to enforce its claims. In such cases, international relations scholars often describe the country as possessing juridical sovereignty.

In the case of Pakistan, the claim is further complicated by the apparently covert agreement between U.S. and Pakistani authorities.

What do you think? Are U.S. drone strikes a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, as Emmerson contends? Or does the covert agreement between U.S. and Pakistani authorities undermine assertions of sovereignty? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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