Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Killing By Remote

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers - Martin Luther King, Jr.

The US is to extend its drone war to Mali, where it intends to 'halt the advance' of 'al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb' (AQIM) and also to Libya, in what CNN today described as 'military payback' for the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Drones will very soon have been used by the US or NATO forces in seven countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia, along with the two new sovereign nation targets.

As this report from 2009 in the Guardian explains, Israel also is not shy of using this technology. It is hardly a major scoop that Israel would partake. However:

The Guardian asked the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) about their use of armed drones but they declined to be interviewed on the subject. Instead they issued a written statement: "The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF's use of weapons conforms to international law."

Let's take a closer look at international law. The Third Geneva Convention states that a so-called 'unlawful combatant' is a civilian who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war.

Targeted killing, often executed by drone aircraft, is the intentional killing of a target deemed to be an 'unlawful combatant' not currently in the custody of the attacking power. This assumes that the person has allegedly lost the immunity granted by the Third Geneva Convention because they are allegedly engaged in terrorism or another form of armed conflict. Note that under the most basic concepts of most legal systems, such intent can only be surmised in a court of law or similar tribunal.

In a speech entitled "The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy" John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, explained the use of combat drones to kill members of al-Qaeda by the Obama administration. Mr. Brennan stated for the first time that the US government uses drones to kill selected members of al-Qaeda.

Mr. Brennan defended the use of drones from the standpoint of both domestic and international law. From the speech:

The United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense.There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provided in August 2010 a succinct FAQ of what is wrong with targeted killing which stands in stark contrast to the assertions of Mr. Brennan.

From the FAQ:

Both the Constitution and international law prohibit the use of lethal force against civilians outside of armed conflict except in very narrow circumstances: as a last resort to prevent an imminent attack that is likely to cause death or serious physical injury.

Allowing the use of warlike tactics far from any battlefield — using drones or other means — turns the whole world into a war zone and sets a dangerous example for other countries which might feel justified in doing the same. If the U.S. claims it can kill suspected enemies of the U.S. anywhere — using unmanned drones or otherwise — then other countries will regard killing their enemies within our borders as justified. We wouldn't be okay with the prospect of other countries executing their suspected enemies within U.S. borders.

The targeted killing of individuals who are suspected — but not proven — to be guilty of crimes also risks the deaths of innocent people. Over the last decade, we have seen the U.S. government wrongly imprison hundreds of men as terrorists based on weak, wrong or unreliable evidence, only to eventually free them. The consequence of such mistakes is far greater when the end result is death; there is no recourse for killing the wrong person.

International law allows such tactics to be used as a last resort only when hard intelligence makes it certain that an attack which will cause death or serious injury is 'imminent'. According to official NATO data quoted in this article, this year in Pakistan alone there have been 36 drone strikes and 448 'militant' casualties. Civilian casualties figures are not provided. Are we really expected to believe that in every single case, there was an imminent threat to a NATO country or citizen?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that CIA tactics include the targeting of rescuers in so-called 'double tap' strikes, and even funerals. Imagine for a moment that a foreign power bombed a funeral in the US? Would that not be (rightly) condemned as a most despicable act of terrorism? If so, how is it acceptable for the CIA to do exactly that in a sovereign country on the other side of the globe? And how does this fit into any possible interpretation of 'acceptable' under international law?

Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve wrote in The Guardian of the case of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy from Waziristan, North Pakistan:

Last October I was at a jirga in Islamabad where 80 people from Waziristan had assembled to talk about the US Predator drones that buzz around overhead, periodically delivering death by Hellfire missile. A jirga is the traditional forum for discussing and resolving disputes, part parliament, part court of law. The turbaned tribal elders were joined by their young sons on a rare foray out of their region to meet outsiders and discuss the killing. The isolation of the Waziris is almost total – no western journalist has been to Miranshah for several years.

At our meeting I spoke as the representative westerner. I reported the CIA claim that not one single innocent civilian had been killed in over a year. I did not need to understand Pashtu to translate the snorts of derision when this claim was translated.

During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated "four militants". In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt's house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other "militants" – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.


Was Tariq an imminent threat to a NATO country? How about the four chromite workers? In this case alone, the egregiously cavalier approach NATO forces have to international law, not to mention their contemptuous disregard for it, is on grisly and tragic display.

The Obama administration has recently embraced a new definition of 'unlawful combatant', namely one that is based on 'behavior patterns' instead of actual intelligence.

What could go wrong?

From the article:

Drone attacks against suspected militants in Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen are often based on what [are] called 'signature strikes' - strikes that target individuals based on patterns of behavior identified by US intelligence. Without an understanding of the local context, power dynamics, and cultural practices, drone operators may interpret routine behavior as suspicious, and mistakenly target civilians, according to an empirical study on the use of attack drones by the C.I.A. authored by the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Surely even the most rabid proponent of drone warfare can see that this is a shambolic decision-making process, and that real, actual, ordinary people, including kids, are being blown to pieces based on 'behavior patterns'. Under such a vague definition, even someone taking a rest by a roadside could be bombed - after all, he could be laying a land mine...or he could just be tired.

The concept of innocent before proven guilty is dead, just like Tariq Aziz. Justice has been turned on its head. International law is now a quaint concept for naive fools like human rights or peace activists who simply do not understand how dangerous those 'terrorists' are. The US and its puppets can do whatever the hell they like, wherever they like, to whomever they like, and justify it with some woolly bullshit about behavior patterns. And with these lawless precedents set, you can be sure that other states with powerful military forces like China and Russia will feel perfectly justified to do the same.

Inurement to civilian casualties has long set in for the vast majority of the world's population, even those who watch establishment media news programs seriously. For them, these tragedies are sanitized, reduced to virtual afterthoughts, tagged on at the end of reports. One may hear, for example: 'Local media outlets report several civilian casualties'. Translation: a bunch of amateur Pakistani news hounds say some locals are dead - hardly likely to bring Westerners out onto the streets in outrage.

The worst expression in the English language is this: 'Shit happens'. This concept, so commonly opined, is the perfect excuse for not doing anything, for not speaking out, for getting on with your lives and putting the crimes of your own government funded by your tax dollars out of your mind. After all, what can you do? Shit happens, right? That's the way of the world.

These people, and they are the vast majority, do not appear to realize that just expressing opposition to these terrible crimes can make a huge difference, as others will hear you and it contributes to incremental change of societal values. The more you can do, the better; but staying silent is a betrayal.

Instead of saying that shit happens, believe instead the words of Voltaire: 'Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do'. Otherwise, this era in human history will come to be known as The Era When Shit Happened.

Note: The Drone Campaign Network has a week of action from Saturday 6th to 13th of October. Support them in any way you can.

'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)

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