Thursday, November 7, 2013

Terror from Above: The U.S. Drone War

The controversial and covert use of drones by the United States has received increasing attention from the world community in recent months.

Until earlier this year, the U.S. Government has been highly secretive about its unmanned drone program, refusing to acknowledge that such a program even existed. To date, the Obama Administration still refuses to disclose the numerous details about drones, which some suspect amount to human rights violations and even war crimes.

Last month, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released reports that examined several drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, finding numerous inconsistencies between the U.S. government’s official version of events and what they learned from locals.

Both reports explain that some drone strikes amount to extrajudicial executions, intentionally harming civilians, and launching attacks on targets that pose no imminent security threat. These strikes also appear to be killing many more civilians than the U.S. government claims. Most seriously, the two prominent organizations suggest that actions by the United States may have violated both human rights and international law.

The United Nations also published two reports that investigated extrajudicial executions via drones and looked at possible human rights violations resulting from drone strikes. These reports called upon the Obama Administration to increase transparency in the drone program and investigate possible violations.

Iowa peace groups respond

Several activists around Iowa are especially opposed to drone warfare and have expressed some optimism about the growing international discussion of drones.

Jeffrey Weiss, Director of Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines called the report from Amnesty International “shocking because Amnesty is a long-time, well respected human rights organization that is cautious oftentimes and careful in its assessment and really, I would say the same thing for Human Rights Watch.”

Weiss said that while he doubts these reports will substantially impact public opinion in the United States, they will have far-reaching consequences.

“It’s good that this will bring drones more to the world’s attention,” he said. “[Drone warfare] certainly makes it more likely that we will be attacked because it’s just going to fuel more and more anger at U.S. foreign policy.”
Maya Evans, Brian Terrell, and Kathy Kelly from Voices for Creative Nonviolence presented their case against drones at the Iowa City Public Library in June.                                                                                     (Jon Overton/Iowa Peace Network)

Ed Flaherty, a member of the Iowa City chapter of Veterans for Peace and a board member of PEACE Iowa, said the lack of transparency surrounding drone strikes is troubling, but the hostility it generates is only part of a larger negative image of the United States.

“The image of the United States as being an international bully is growing daily,” he explained. “This is related to our current obsession with what we call national security ... we are perceived by the rest of the world as being the bully.”

Agreeing with Flaherty’s sentiment, Julie Fischer, Coordinator of the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center was especially struck by Amnesty International’s explanation of drone activity in North Waziristan, a war-torn Pakistani province.

“They’re just terrorized all the time,” Fischer said. “They’ve stated themselves, ‘we can’t live a normal life here.’”

Along with drones, the residents of this area deal with violence from the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani military. Some residents have reportedly begun using sleeping pills because they can’t fall asleep naturally due to the noise from drones constantly flying overhead. Even if drones don’t attack, they still generate fear.

Some Pakistanis told Amnesty International that they avoid congregating in large groups, even in mosques, because they fear that drone operators won’t know the difference between civilians and the militants that drones are supposed to be targeting.

One of the few bright spots in the drone controversy is that more information is becoming available and sheds light on what is happening, said Kathleen McQuillen, the Iowa program coordinator for American Friends Service Committee. She noted that war weariness among Americans may also help build opposition to drone warfare.

“We did see how the public said ‘no’ to war with Syria, so now we’re trying to capture and hold onto that energy and say ‘no’ to drones,” McQuillen said.

The legality of drones

In May, President Obama explained his administration’s legal rationale for using drones, saying that the United States is at war with terrorists operating outside conventional governments and that this is a war of self-defense so it is in line with national and international law.

Certainly, the United Nations does not prohibit fighting to protect oneself, but as Flaherty noted, article 51 of the UN Charter states that “Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.” Since the United States is not abiding by this section of the UN Charter, Flaherty said, the nation is violating international law.

The Obama Administration did explain some of the parameters within which it said counterterrorism operations (like drone strikes) would occur. Targets must pose an imminent threat to the United States, capture must be infeasible, there must be near certainty that civilians will not be injured, and the attack must not violate state sovereignty, among other criteria.

Indeed, the report from Amnesty International explained that targeting or inadvertently killing civilians via indiscriminate attacks would constitute war crimes.

All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid and minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, the report stated.

However, case studies suggest that not all drone strikes fit these guidelines. Amnesty International investigated a situation where a Pakistani woman was literally blown apart by a drone strike in front of her grandchildren, some of whom were injured in the attack. A year later, the family has received no explanation for her death.
A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission 
in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has 
the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.
(Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/U.S. Air Force Photo)
Human Rights Watch recounted a case where a drone strike in Yemen killed a vigorously anti-extremist cleric and policeman who reluctantly agreed to meet with Al-Qaeda affiliates. The Yemeni government agreed to financially compensate the families of those who were wrongfully killed.

However, while the United States is supplying Yemen with weapons and other forms of support, it does not officially consider itself an actor in the ongoing war between Yemen and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula because it is only responding to threats from Al-Qaeda.

“Under that rationale, the US government should be applying a war model to its actions only if there is a genuine armed conflict between the US and [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], which is not evident,” Human Rights Watch stated. “Otherwise the United States needs to be acting in accordance with the higher threshold for the use of force under applicable law enforcement standards found in international human rights law.”

If the relationship between Yemen and the United States is a little hard to parse out, Pakistan’s involvement in drone strikes is terribly murky at best.

“Pakistan’s current and previous government, parliaments and sections of its society have publicly opposed the US drone program ... Some [military officials] also claimed that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services continue to assist the USA in carrying out drone strikes,” the report from Human Rights Watch explained.

Amnesty International stated that the legality of using drones in foreign countries can be fairly hazy. It is legal if the nation controlling the territory where strikes occur consents to their use, if the UN Security Council provides a special mandate, or if strikes are carried out in self-defense and follow the obligations laid out in article 51 of the UN Charter.

Some also argue that international law lets nations use military force in another country if there is an overwhelming and imminent threat. Amnesty International explained that while it won’t take a position on whether this type of force is legal, the faction using force and the nation that consents to the use of it are responsible for any human rights violations resulting from military operations.

Neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International directly accused the United States of breaking the law, though both urged the American government to investigate incidents that may have violated international law and for those responsible to be held accountable. They also called on the United States to make public the full criteria and parameters under which drone strikes are conducted, in addition to who the strikes target, and who dies as a result of bombings. The UN experts on counterterrorism and extrajudicial executions agreed with both human rights organizations.

The morality of drones

Many public officials have argued that drones minimize civilian casualties. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has defended the drone program, characterizing strikes as “surgical,” and saying that using other means would result in far more civilian deaths.

Some Iowa peace activists didn’t buy it.

“That’s a little bit like a wife who’s on trial for killing her husband and saying, ‘You know judge, aren’t you glad I didn’t kill all the kids too?’” Weiss said.

“Isn’t that a lovely argument?” Flaherty said. “That we could kill innocent people in other means and that’s a justification for the means that we do use.”

McQuillen said she thinks the public is beginning to recognize the incredible damage drones can cause and by drawing attention to certain incidents, greater opposition to drones in the United States can arise.

“We’re hitting a tipping point where people are beginning to say ‘This is absurd,’” she said.

However, when drones have killed innocent civilians, sometimes the victims’ family members are financially compensated. While Amnesty International notes a severe lack of support for relatives of innocent victims in Pakistan, Humans Rights Watch reported that a few victims occasionally receive compensation from the Yemeni government. Both organizations urged the U.S., Pakistani, and Yemeni governments to provide compensation when family members are wrongfully killed.

Fischer said she had mixed feelings on providing compensation.

“It’s almost a slap in the face after you’ve done something horrible to say ‘here’s some money for the people we took from you,’” she explained. “But at the same time, when you realize that those families where the fathers have been killed, they’re left without any kind of breadwinner and without any kind of future. There needs to be some kind of compensation, but we need to acknowledge that this isn’t enough.”

Flaherty struck a similar tone, saying that there is no justification for the current use of drones.

“If someone is truly killed accidentally, of course we should compensate [families],” he said. “On the other hand, compensation does not justify policy and a practice that is evil at its core.”

The effectiveness of drones

Drones certainly are effective killing machines. There’s no debate there. They have killed thousands of militants and done quite a number on high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

But there is an argument from the anti-drone camp that, if true, poses some serious dilemmas for the Obama Administration: drones allegedly create more enemies than they kill.

The logical place to begin is how many people drones have killed, but exact numbers are complicated by the secrecy surrounding drone strikes, the remoteness of targets, and the Obama Administration’s definition of who is a militant. This definition “In effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants ... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” the New York Times reported last year.

Nevertheless, several organizations have compiled casualty estimates, but these numbers vary wildly, even within organizations themselves.

The Pakistani government told Ben Emmerson, a UN Special Rapporteur, that since the drone campaign began in 2004, at least 400 of 2,200 people killed in drone strikes were civilians. But recently, Pakistan drastically revised its numbers, saying that since 2008, 67 of the grand total killed were civilians.

Other organizations like the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal, and the New America Foundation each tallied the number of casualties, based on media reports, but the numbers are still highly varied, ranging from around 2,000 to 3,600 total dead and 150 to 900 civilians killed in Pakistan.

Public opinion, however, may offer further guidance.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Pakistanis said they saw the United States as an enemy in 2012, up 10 percentage points from 2009. An overwhelming 94 percent of Pakistanis also said drone strikes kill too many innocent people. However, popular support for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or the Taliban has not made any substantial gains in recent years.

The final piece is the growth of terrorist activity since drone strikes began.

While data is limited, the Middle East Policy Council found a correlation between the intensity of drone strikes and terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2009. Researchers said it was “probable that drone strikes provide motivation for retaliation, and that there is a substantive relationship between the increasing number of drone strikes and the increasing number of retaliation attacks.”

Researchers from New York University and Stanford University interviewed several residents of North Waziristan, the Pakistani province that has been the hardest hit by drone strikes. Many people said that before the drone strikes, they had no opinion or approved of the United States.

“Before the drone attacks, we didn’t know [anything] about America,” one Pakistani said. “Now everybody has come to understand and know about America ... Almost all people hate America.”

Noor Behrem, a journalist who works in North Waziristan and frequently photographs and reports on the aftermath of drone strikes told researchers that “When people are out there picking up body parts after a drone strike, it would be very easy to convince those people to fight against America.”

Flaherty said that even if people are unconcerned about the legality and morality surrounding drones, they should at least be concerned with how the rest of the world sees the drone program.

“We are creating more enemies for the United States than we are killing,” he said. “We are creating more ill will for the United States than we could possibly be gaining, so if in fact, we want to establish the image of the United States as the bully of the world, then we should do more of what we’re doing.”

See the Iowa Peace Network events page for information on upcoming drone events in Des Moines.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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