King 1963: I have a dream. Obama 2013: I have a drone

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Today, fifty years on, in tribute to the great civil rights leader, the US marks Martin Luther King Jr Day with a federal holiday in his name.

Today also sees Barack Obama take to the steps of the city’s Capitol Building for his second public inauguration as President of the United States of America. There is no escaping the echoes from half a century ago, not least because Obama has chosen to use MLK’s bible, alongside Lincoln’s, for his swearing in ceremony.

With such powerful symbolism on show, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Obama and King. If some see Obama, as the country’s first black president, as the realisation of at least part of King’s dream, many also see Obama’s record as a war leader at odds with the nonviolent vision of King.

While King had a dream, Obama has a drone.

Under Obama, the US government has relied increasingly on drones to kill terror suspects. According to reports, more than 2,500 people have been killed in over 300 drone strikes since Obama took office. US drone attacks have more than doubled overall in Pakistan during the Obama administration, and drones are also now being used far afield, from Yemen to Libya.

Of course, some of those killed likely have been “bad guys”. But that’s not really the point; at least, not if you believe in the rule of law.

As AI USA has noted: “We know that among those killed were some who were essentially accused in secret of crimes or other wrongdoing but in respect of whom no efforts were made to bring them to justice in a court of law. We know that there were others about whom the government had no specific information but who may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know that among those killed have been men of different ages, women, and children. We also know that every one of the people the government has killed, whoever they were and whatever they may have been believed to have done, had the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life.”

Obama’s administration has continued to rely on his predecessor’s “global war” legal theory that treats the entire world as a battlefield between the USA and armed groups, on which lethal force may potentially be used virtually anywhere at any time without regard to human rights standards. News that there are now moves afoot to allow the drone killing campaign to continue without restrictions in Pakistan is deeply worrying.

Such an approach is not only of concern in its own right, it also weakens the credibility of the USA in advocating for respect for human rights by other states and sets dangerous precedents for other states to adopt to justify their own unlawful killings, so eroding further the foundations of the international legal framework which protect us all.

President Obama was granted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize more for what he might deliver, than for what he had accomplished. He has four short years left to build a legacy of peace and respect for human rights which would merit the award.

He could start by ensuring that his use of drones comes into line with international law.

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