Legal Aid Forum for Human Rights Chitral (LAFH) at a peace walk at Chitral, which included demands for an end to drone strikes that were killing civilian adults and children. Photo by groundreporter.
The moral case against drones ought to be obvious: sending unmanned missiles against targets absolves the sender of any sense of what he is attacking, as he could be thousands of miles away. As the centuries go by and wars become more automated -- with slingshots, and bows and arrows and canons, then guns and automatic weapons and then even the nuclear bomb, the carnage has grown, and the modern war is notable for killing more civilians than combatants.
The legal case is somewhat harder to make, however, as war itself is not illegal under international law; you can have a war, as long as you obey international humanitarian law. But human rights groups like Human Rights First are building the case for designating drones as violators of IHL and there is increasingly thoughtful discussion by international lawyers on the subject -- just not fast enough to catch up with the moral objections.
The political case for drones is that they kill less people than armies and bombs, and there is also a sizeable contingent that also sees the technology as having peaceful uses and even human rights uses -- documenting atrocities in places like Sudan or Syria, for example.
The good uses hardly seem to outweigh the bad now, as the drones are proliferating and more and more people are killed in the attacks as "collateral damage." In the US, the drone program has been secretive and run by the Central Intelligence Agency -- apparently the justification for that is the need for very precise intelligence about the targets. Yet because the CIA runs the program, the true extent of the civilians killed abroad is hidden -- and even when the victims' relatives manage to make their way to lawyers or human rights activists, they cannot get compensation or any justice because only the US armed forces pay compensation to such victims -- not the CIA.
Hence, there has been an increasing campaign against drones and advocacy on behalf of their victims, to stop them all together, and at the very least, move the program out of the CIA, and compensate the victims.
This was the message of a program convened May 2 in New York at the UN Church Center by the Global Policy Forum, an NGO that works on peace and security issues at the UN. The invited speakers included Medea Benjamin, a leader of the anti-war group Code Pink, and author of a new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, and Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer from Islamabad, who works with an organization called Foundation for Fundamental Rights.
Now, a word about Code Pink. This is not my kind of organization. I don't believe in heckling people at meetings, staging disruptions in Congress, and that sort of thing -- as Medea Benjamin recently did at a speech by John Brennan. It's not what organizations I have worked with over the years do; it's "direct action" of the kind that I increasingly find obnoxious and ineffective, such as with Occupy Wall Street.
I'm not a radical socialist or anarchist infused with Marxist-Leninist doctrines; I think the radicalism and sectarianism of some of these groups have actually kept a wider anti-war movement from coming into being, such as we had in the 1980s with the freeze movement. I'm also never going to get into harness with groups that spend a lot of their time obsessing on the US and Israel, and never focusing on the far greater warmongers of the world in Syria, Iran, Sudan, Russia, and China -- who first of all, war against their own people.
There's another deep problem with the radical anti-war movements, of course, and that is the failure to come to grips with terrorism and its destruction of human rights, and to worry only about the effects of counter-terrorism on the violation of human rights. Hence we get Gita-gate; we get the failure to stand by Galima; we get the Ken Roth problem with Islamic states.
Yet regardless of the motivations and background that led Code Pink to take up this issue, and regardless of the nature of their organization, the issue is indeed a moral one. I'm always willing to look at a moral protest that anyone puts forward to see if it is legitimate. That's why I get a huge variety of publications in my email box everyday, from the Daily Kos to the Tea Party.
Preoccupied with student loans and foreclosures and its own arcane process and method, the OWS movement failed to get a very articulated anti-war message going, not even connecting the basics between their perception of the 1 percent's evils and the "banksters' bailouts" and war profiteering. To be sure, at one demonstration I covered, there was a papier-mache drone -- the one effective symbol in a sea of lengthy and obscure graduate-student posters about repealing Sarbanes-Oxley amidst antisemitic caricatures of Ben Bernanke -- and the only anti-war symbol.
Recently, Code Pink had a "drone summit" and the mainstream human rights groups didn't come. They are beginning to speak more about drones, albeit more cautiously; Human Rights Watch is focusing on the issue of transfering their management from the CIA to the US armed forces. Most likely they just didn't want to associate with a group that heckles speakers at meetings and takes wildly radical positions. Understood. So what are we all doing about drones anyway?
Code Pink is right to raise the issues of moral degradation around the topic -- many Americans approve the use of drones; there are many that says it's ok even to kill American citizens with them (because there are a few American citizens who are terrorists who have been killed by drones or missiles abroad); the universities are sponsoring the research about them, in the common symbiosis with the military industry. In fact, while more and more Americans want to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home, they still approve drones as somehow part of that same process.
Some doubts about the drone wars have apparently been privately expressed by military officials who believe we make more enemies than we defeat with the use of drones. They now appear to be more vulnerable with the news that Iran has allegedly hacked one that crashed. They are also proliferating -- 50 countries now have them. There is concern that the US air space will be opened up to commercial use of drones by 2015, says Medea Benjamin. She has been told by those who defend their use that there is "due process" in their targeting in war. She counters that there is due process, "but not judicial process." They are extrajudicial killings or targeted assassinations -- and the UN community tends to object to these on IHL grounds. Remember, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised questions about the US assassination of Osama bin Ladn in his home (although Martin Scheinin did not).
Benjamin has resigned herself to cease trying to "stop" or "get rid" of drones, as they are here to stay. Now it's a matter of regulating them, and getting more transparency on their use.
And I would add, getting compensation for their victims; the highlighting of these cases, and the just compensation, will help serve as a deterrent to their use which might be better designated as misuse.
This is where Shahzad Akbar comes in. Akbar is a 30-something corporate lawyer who was working for business clients and then gradually became drawn into the cause of the drone victims. He had trouble getting his US visa but eventually was admitted to the US to go on the lecture circuit.
He says that since 2004, there have been 321 attacks, and 269 on Obama's watch in Pakistan. In these roughly 300 attacks, 3,097 people have been killed.
Most have not been identified. But through the work of local villagers, relatives, and human rights groups, they have found that as many as 811 were civilians, and of these 174 were children.
There are difficulties in getting these identifications. In some meetings, Akbar has given a range of "between 400-800," judging from other press accounts. A key factor for determining who is a civilian and who is a militant is age -- a 15-year-old boy will not be generally taken as a civilian by the US military. But it is not the custom for Pakistanis to celebrate birthdays or even keep birth certificates.
As for the number out of this 3,097, 811 of which were said to be civilians, the lawyer claims only 175 were identified indeed as militants. So that means lots of cases are not known, and suspected as civilians by the human rights community. They are right to ask whether it was worth killing at least one child per every identified militant. I pressed him on the question of who and how these 175 were identified as militants; it seems that not Pakistani authorities, but lawyers have made this determination, although not out of sympathy with the militants' cause.
Says Akbar, "No one wants the militants to take over," but they don't want the military with the help of the CIA and the Pentagon to take over, either, he added. There are 40,000 Pakistani military men in an area with a population of about 300,000 in North Waziristan, where the drone attacks are made.
"No information comes out of here," says Akbar. His organization has spent a lot of time trying to get it, nonetheless. He now has taken up the cases of of 105 civilians, of which 24 were children and a total of 651 cases being investigated.
"Merely killing militants usually succeeds in multiplying them, increasing the ranks of those with no redress," he said.
His group does not represent militants who have been injured, but believes their cases need representation as well.
From the first cases of the Obama era he began researching, Akbar claims that, for example, on January 23, 2008, 2 strikes killed 9 people who in fact were all civilians. he said. Other reports tell it differently; according to Reuters, and BBC, a senior al Qaeda member, Abu Laith al-Libi, was killed in this strike, but appears that women and children were also killed.
Akbar feels the reporting on the militants is sketchy; he's personally seen times when militants are "killed over and over" -- reported as dead repeatedly. One of his clients is a 14-yearp-old boy who lost his legs and one eye after a drone attack, and he is unable to get to school now. In another attack on August 23, 2010, Akbar said 6 houses were destroyed, and a child of 7 was killed. His grief-stricken father refused to bury him, despite the strong cultural tradition requiring immediate burial. It was only a small piece of shrapnel that killed the boy, and his father kept crying, "Why is my son considered a terrorist?"
It shouldn't take much to see what's wrong with this picture.
Akbar thinks the drone strikes have exacerbated the conflict; before it was small, and not over the whole territory, and there were just "sleeping cells" of Taliban. But now the Taliban is visible everywhere.
I asked how many were injured compared to the 3,000 plus deaths reported, and Akbar said there were 700-900 persons injured who had survived attacks. That seems possibly acceptable to some as "collateral damage" -- the numbers aren't higher because the targeting is precise.
The discussion about drones went off in many directions at this meeting, with some talking even hysterically about new advances in nanotechnology that might create tiny drones the size of insects that might buzz in our windows, and some talking about how drones in the US might be used against "the bad guys, when the bad guys means Muslims, blacks, and OWS protesters."
As always, it seems to me that rather than talking about the hysterical hypotheticals in the US or overseas, the focus has to be on the real victims. There are real victims, and they should be compensated and at a minimum much greater care has to be exercised in the strikes -- and the larger question asked about whether in fact they are creating more militants and angry civilians than they are eliminating actual terrorists.
Some Congressional action has been sparked, in part because of the public speech by John Brennan about the drones recently, at which Medea Benjamin created a disturbance. Human Rights First has made a statement. Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers have written to President Obama asking that Congress be provided with information on the CIA and JSOCs use of "signature" drone strikes.
Although we mainly hear about activism against drones, some Pakistanis want the US to resume drone attacks; it's difficult to tell what these people represent.
The story of the plight of the Pakistani victims is getting more attention in alternative press