Obama drone review welcomed, but international review still needed, bishop says

President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would place tighter restrictions on the use of drones against suspected terrorists was welcomed by the bishop who sent a letter May 17 to the White House and congressional leaders seeking a wide-scale public discussion on the use of the emerging technology.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, who chairs the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, urged the administration to fully consider the moral questions surrounding the use of drones as it refines its policy.

Bishop Richard E. Pates (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Bishop Richard E. Pates (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

“The (White House) policy has raised a lot of serious moral questions and concerns,” Bishop Pates said May 28. “I don’t think it’s been widely discussed with the American public. It’s a relatively new revelation for the broader public. The letter itself and what we are addressing is the questions of civilians and those who are killed as ‘collateral damage.’ So we have to be very open about what is involved in the utilization of this (technology).”

Obama offered a strong defense of drone use to protect American security in an address at the National Defense University May 23, but also said it was time to review how they are being used. The U.S. showed it was not about to back off of their use, however, if today’s attack in Pakistan is any indication. Pakistani intelligence officials said a suspected drone strike killed four people including Waliur Rehman, who is considered the No. 2 leader in the Pakistan Taliban.

The Taliban denied he was dead.

The bishop suggested that Obama would do well if he took the discussion of drone use to the world on the path to developing international protocols.

“We think it is very important that it undergo international discussion and scrutiny,” said the bishop, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We feel that is very important because the technology soon will be widespread.”

Crew prepares to launch pilot-less drone combat aircraft from aircraft carrier in Atlantic Ocean off coast of Virginia May 14. (CNS/Reuters)

Crew prepares to launch pilot-less drone combat aircraft from aircraft carrier in Atlantic Ocean off coast of Virginia May 14. (CNS/Reuters)

The letter was about a year in development, first broached by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham of Syracuse, N.Y., who was looking for help in understanding the moral issues surrounding drone use. The diocese is home to the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, one of several U.S. centers where drone operators pilot the unmanned aircraft in their search for suspected Muslim militants halfway around the world. The base also has been the scene of regular nonviolent vigils and protests.

As questions were raised, the committee reached out to Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who urged the USCCB to move forward with the letter because of the U.S. role as the world’s leading user of drones.

The council itself is planning to examine the use of drones during a session at a conference it is putting together this fall.

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