Living in the Path of Drones
Photo Credit: U.S. Army
As the 2012 U.S.
election dust settles for President Barrack Obama, a global issue is knocking on the White House door. The continuing U.S. policy on drones—pilotless aircraft used for tactical bombing—is causing an escalated stir outside the chambers of the White House, as well as a reported debate within.
Used as part of an accelerated campaign against what the administration calls the nation's "threat threshold," the expansion of the U.S. drone program since January 2009, when Obama officially began his presidency, has caused human rights advocates worldwide to speak out about possible crimes against humanity by the U.S. government.
"Pakistani women, including me, all wish that not only our country but the world should become a peaceful place to live and our future generation should have a society with freedom and equal opportunity to learn and earn," said Islamabad based Pakistani human rights journalist and staff reporter at Pakistan Observer Sana Jamal. "As you know, human rights advocates worldwide do not condone bomb strikes that are killing innocents!"
The campaign to use unmanned planes for bombings is not a new idea. The history of experimentation with the use of radio-controlled aircraft began as early as 1917 picking up steam as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory started to develop the drones further in 1935.
Just over six months ago the Obama administration went public outlining a military justification in the administration's use of drones to go after 'identified' insurgents.
"I know that for many people—in our government and across the country—the issue of targeted strikes raised profound moral questions," said John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser and deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism, in an April 2012 presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "It forces us to confront deeply held personal beliefs and our values as a nation. If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven't struggled with this, then they haven't spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism," he continued.
According to a recent New York Times report, Brennan is among those in the Obama administration who argue for restraint in drone use.
Human rights advocates, including scholars at Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law, say the bombings may be killing many more victims than United States officials are publicly acknowledging. The resulting trauma to civilians corrodes chances for future peace in the region.
"Drones are used to carry out extrajudicial executions...murder," said Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams to WMC in a recent interview. They are also "illegal under the laws of war," she added. Williams received her 1997 Nobel Peace Prize after she was pivotal in the creation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
"We have a lot of things to do," said Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK - Women for Peace as she outlined the group's recent October campaign to stop the drone strikes in Pakistan. "We've been to an area where Pakistanis have not seen Americans for 10 years," added Benjamin describing families who live in the remote FATA - Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Waziristan, where drones have been reported to fly 24/7 over communities and homes.
The recent CODEPINK campaign brought 31 Americans and one Canadian to Pakistan as part of what CODEPINK calls a "humanitarian mission to meet with and help victims of drone strikes."
"We wanted to let them know that Americans do care about injustice," said Benjamin. As she outlined in her 2012 book, Drone Warfare - Killing by Remote Control, "In many ways, drones present the same moral issues as any other action-at-a-distance weapon: They allow warriors to kill at a minimal risk to themselves."
Describing her on-the-ground experience in Pakistan, Benjamin said people on the side of the road threw rose petals on the cars used by CODEPINK while they were there protesting the drones. "There was a Pashtun man who got up at one of the meetings and said, 'You have my heart and mind,'" she added.
"I was overwhelmed by the welcome that we received by the Pakistanis," said one of the organizing CODEPINK delegates to Pakistan, Alli MacCracken, who is also the current Washington, D.C., coordinator for CODEPINK.
The ultimate question facing a world that needs global peace is: how would American's feel about drone bombings in their own backyard? The answer seems obvious and points to the need for military culpability and transparency on all sides.
"On the whole, Pakistanis agree that the drone strikes should stop," said Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf in a recent interview.
Yusuf currently writes for Dawn, Pakistan's largest daily newspaper. She is also a 2010-2011 Woodrow Wilson Scholar. She explained that while their arguments differ markedly, both conservative and liberal Pakistanis are against the strikes continuing.
According to compilations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 300 U.S. drone strikes have been conducted in Pakistan under Obama's command. But experts including Yusuf agree that complete data on the casualties and deaths from drones have not been made available, from Pakistan or the United States.
"Journalists aren't allowed in the tribal areas, both by [Pakistan's] army and Taliban themselves," explained Yusuf. "It'll take an external party, the UN for example, to go into the area and conduct household surveys to determine who has been killed. But there isn't enough security for that," she added.
Christof Heyns, United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, announced in October that the UN will be launching an investigation unit to take a detailed look at U.S. policies of 'targeted killing' with drones.
"In my view it is unethical and immoral as well as illegal," continued Williams, who said that members of the Campaign to Ban Landmines were planning a new intensive global effort now to "Stop Killer Robots."
In addition to pressure from leaders such as Williams and the CODEPINK activists, today much of the ongoing work for human rights is being carried out by numerous Pakistani women who hope to bring greater stability and democracy to their home region. "I think this factor also matters: are the drone strikes so important that the U.S is willing to undermine Pakistan's democratic transition?" asks Yusuf.
"Drone strikes are the number one reason that the general public has developed feelings of hostility and hatred towards the U.S.," said journalist Jamal. Referring to recent reports of drone use by the Syrian regime she added, "Peace activists must unite on this important issue and stand with us since drone strikes are not just being carried out in Pakistan, but Syria as well."