Terror from the Skies: Anti-Drone Activists, Victims Convene In DC

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"Pregnant women lose their babies from the stress of the constant buzzing of drones...  a 10-year-old girl died in a recent attack with her parents; she was holding on so tightly to her mother that the village people had to bury them together in one grave... our bombs are not smart....I am sorry .....We are creating a model for other countries; we can kill people based on secret information...no more imperial crimes...Attorney General Eric Holder said drone strikes within US are unlawful by why not overseas?” -
These were some of the voices from the Global Drone Summit held over the third weekend of November, 2013 in Washington D.C.

About 400 people from across international boundaries gathered at this important drone summit that took place at the Georgetown Law School. The venue itself was a major accomplishment, organized by Women for Peace- CODEPINK and co-sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild and the Institute of Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

Yemeni representatives, privacy lawyers, scientists, activists, an opposition leader from Pakistan, former members of the armed forces, and artists met to hear stories, share latest research, plan and mentor grassroots activists. This was an action packed year for the anti-drone movement as public interest has grown; this year’s summit was about pushing policies towards a drone-free world, educating the public and strategizing.

“We were told that drones would only go to hit the bad guys” started Medea Benjamin, co founder of CODEPINK, who traveled to Pakistan a week after the bombing started, hoping to cross into Afghanistan,  and saw civilian families from Afghanistan in the streets of Peshawar, Pakistan. Benjamin related that she met a young girl begging, Roya who took them to her home- targeted by mistake- where her brothers and mother were obliterated. “We could not tell my mother from my brothers. Her father, a candy man, lost his senses and at 13, she became the head of her household, escaping through the Khyber Pass with the rest of her family.

“When will it end it? It has been 11 years,” questioned Benjamin. CODEPINK demands accountability from Congress and when they don’t get meetings, the group arranges protests at military bases, and in front of manufacturers of weaponized drones.


Dr. Cornel West, professor and author, gave the keynote address on the relationship between Wall Street, the military and the integrity and moral ethos of the American people. “Those babies who are killed in Pakistan and Yemen have exactly the same value as the white children who were killed in Newtown, Connecticut,” said West. “You can’t drop a drone on innocent people and pretend that it doesn’t effect your soul, your destiny, your sense of who you are, and this fragile experiment on democracy.”
Several legal myths were deconstructed during the legal panel of the summit. According to former President of the National Lawyers Guild, Marjorie Cohn, who moderated the panel, the U.S. is currently breaking the law with the use of drones strikes. The legality of drone strikes overseas and global war on terror was dissected by constitutional lawyer Mary Ann O'Connell. The law is being mangled by the use of drones, she said. “None of these countries have attacked the US; we don’t have an invitation to use [drones] as the current leader in Yemen does not have legitimacy.” Self-defense doesn’t justify strikes as the U.S. is not in an armed conflict, said O’Connell referring to Article 51 of Charter of the United Nations. None of the basic principles of legality are met to justify using drones: necessity-when negotiations and law enforcement have not worked, chance of success and proportionality.

Accountability of deaths was discussed by Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center of Constitutional Rights. She is the lead counsel for Al-Aulaqi family over the killing 16 year old Abdul Rahman Al-Aulaqi; seven people died in that drone attack including two children at a public restaurant. Based on her work with Guantanamo Bay detainees, Kebriaei asked activists to equally press for a deeper legal, and moral critique, along with transparency and judicial review.

Participants also heard from former U.S. military personnel previously involved in the drones program, including Daniel Hale, an intelligence analyst. He took the audience inside the bunker in the US, where young drone operators are shown scenes of the 9-11 carnage on repeat, as they choose targets in Afghanistan based on data provided by analysts like Hale. Drones surveillance covers the breadth of the country down to a “3 inch blade of grass,”

Hale apologized to the victims and their families. Thinking that he was part of an operation meant to protect Afghanistan, but when four innocent men died because of information he fed leading to a drone strike, Hale realized that he “was no longer part of something moral or sane or rational.” He had heard someone say that “terrorists are cowards” because they used IEDs. “What was different,” Hale asked, “between that and the little red joystick that pushes a button thousands of miles away?”

On Cyber Monday, news spread of Amazon announcing future drone delivery services, a service that the retailer would need Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) permission to fly the drones to customers, so is still a few years in the making; this was followed by the ‘leak’ of United Parcel Service (UPS) drone research. Investment writers call the commercial market for drone sales "the next blockbuster," the "most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace market this decade," projecting $89 billion in sales, according to aerospace and intelligence analysts, the Teal Group.

Chris Cole, who runs drone wars.net, spoke on a panel about proliferation issues along with Israeli researcher Dalit Baum of Who Profits?, German drone campaigner Elsa Rassbach and Noel Sharkey of ICRAC and the Killer Robots campaign.  At the moment US, UK and Israel and 12 nations have seen drone strikes, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Philippines, Gaza, Egypt and the Sudan. 87 countries have drones and are in the process of weaponizing them. Israel is the the largest drone and related technology exporter, said Dalit Baum.

Dr. Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics presented concerns about the next step in technology: fully autonomous weapon systems.”Drones are not the only robots used in warfare, its not just in the sky.” The kill functions these weapons the ability to select their own target and kill them. He showed images straight out of an autobot movie--of robots supposedly used for mine clearance equipped to bomb areas as a big as a city block. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) secretly developed fully autonomous 7 ton trucks called Crushers. China, Russia, and Israel are all developing these; “everything is going autonomous, we can’t let it go to the next step.”

Sharkey’s concern was that these are indiscriminate weapons: “We have to draw a moral line somewhere, they cannot tell a civilian, wounded or surrendering soldier.” He said that they don’t that kind of judgement, and cannot be held accountable. Sharkey rescinded his citizenship when the UK refused to sign the world-wide moratorium on autonomous killer robots; working at the diplomatic level, meeting with United Nations delegates and educating them, he shared that the UN has announced a mandate for funded discussions to start next year to cheers from the crowd.

Drone technology is here and the regulations needed to keep up with the technology is far behind. The participants at the summit questioned surveillance and why there is no public access to who is allowed to fly domestic drones.

As use of hunter-killer drones overseas continue, use here in the U.S. is also expected to grow. Opening up of the U.S. Airspace for drones by 2015 was an electrifying concern for organizers; it would mean a 24 surveillance society by drones designed to be weaponized. President Obama recently asked the FAA to make the US skies drone ready. Local governments have the power to restrict drone use within city limits. One of the concrete steps advocated by the drone summit was that ordinary people can work on a drone ban ordinance for their local towns, villages, cities, counties, and states.