Gathering of Anti-Drone Activists in DC Coincides with First US Admission of Drone Usage
On April 29th and 30th a women-initiated peace and social justice organization CodePink held a two day summit on drone warfare. White house counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan made the first official admission by the Obama administration of drone usage, a topic that has been both highly controversial and highly secretive.
The summit hosted speakers from various fields of study and industries to raise awareness for the increased use of drones by the United States government and to urge attendees to demand transparency and ethical standards.
“One big problem with the use of U.S. drones is that it’s very secretive and so just getting information out there is quite a hassle,” said Ramah Kudaimi, an organizer of the event. “We were hoping this summit would get this information out there.”
Approximately 230 people attended the summit in D.C. aiming to rally support against drones but recent Washington Post-ABC poll statistics show that 83 percent of Americans support the Obama administration's use of drones.
“I realized in the last year that the way that the U.S. makes war was really transforming in a very real way, from boots on the ground to special operations and drones,” said Madea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. “If we were going to be aware of the evolution of warfare then it was important to learn about the drones.”
Benjamin, a long time human rights activist said her interest in drones began when troops landed in Afghanistan following the events of September 11th. What she saw on the ground, she said, made her question the information that was being presented to the American public.
“I think most of the American public thinks that drones are good, that they are a more humane way of killing our enemies without putting our [military] at risk,” she said. “They are not going to meet an end to the wars that we have been waging but that they are going to ensure that they are going to keep going. They fuel anti-american sentiment and backlash.”
Incidents where drones have killed, injured or displaced civilians has activists around the world demanding U.S. accountability and compensation for the victims of the attacks.
The U.S. government has been secretive regarding the use of drones. Brennan gave a speech on APRIL 30th, openly admitting their use by the Obama administration for the first time and asked the public to trust the judgments of the government while ensuring that an ethical standard was being adhered to.
“So let me say it as simply as I can...Yes, in full accordance with the law — and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives — the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” said Brennan in his speech as reported by the Washington Post.
Benjamin, who was in attendance, interrupted Brennan’s speech.
"How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed? I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old in Pakistan, who was killed because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen, just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution, on behalf of the rule of law. I love the rule of law. I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people." she said, her back toward Brennan.
She was escorted out of the room by security, handcuffed and taken down to a police station located inside the Woodrow Wilson building.
“I was questioned on my motive and my background. They decided not to arrest me. I think it would not have looked good for the Wilsons Center to arrest me for exercising free speech,” she said in regards to the incident.
Benjamin hadn’t planned the protest. She wasn't’ even aware of Brennan’s speech until the day before it was set to take place. CodePink had connected with the local Occupy DC movement to pass out flyers in front of the Wilson Center on drone warfare. She had arrived for that purpose but at the last minute decided to see if she could get into the invitation only event.
“I thought, [why not], I’ll try. I gave my name and they said go ahead and have a seat up front,” said Benjamin. “I couldn’t help but get up and speak up for the innocent lives that have been taken by the US and how that too has tarnished our reputation,” said Benjamin.
“It’s particularly horrifying that we can kill an American teenager because his father is someone we don’t like,” she said of Al-Awlaki’s son.
Controversy still shrouds the use of drones in the death of Anwar Al-Awlaki last September, a U.S. citizen who was not tried in the judicial process.
While Benjamin argues the morality and oversight of drone warfare by the United States, the government is breaking no “rules of law” by using them said David Glazier, Professor of Law at Loyola Law school in Los Angeles, California.
“The use of armed drones as such does not pose a problem under the law of war. The history of warfare has seen a steady evolution of weapons, as militaries have continually sought to develop ways to inflict damage on an adversary while keeping their own forces beyond their enemy's reach,” said Glazier.
Innocent victims of drone attacks in states of war, are not legally entitled to compensation, however numerous drone attacks in regions not in conflict with the United States have suffered casualties as a result of these attacks.
“There is probably no current consensus that a state must compensate innocent victims when military action takes place on the party of a state party, although the U.S. typically has elected to do this I don't think international law requires compensation to innocent victims when conflict takes place on the territory of a state party, but logically does when the harm occurs in a "neutral" state like Pakistan,” said Glazier.
Weeks ago, Pakistan’s parliament denounced U.S. drone attacks in the country as a violation of sovereignty.
Despite the issue of legality, Glazier said that it was in the United States best interest to compensate whether legally bound or not.
“In any event compensation for innocent victims is clearly the right thing to do even where not legally required. And it serves our national interest by reducing the amount of support these attacks generate for U.S. adversaries like al Qaeda and the Taliban,” he said.
Benjamin said education is the first step to raising public awareness of drone attacks. While she regards them as a natural evolution in warfare, she is committed to demanding government transparency and ensuring that ethical standards are followed in their use. Standards that Glazier said are likely not being followed by the United States, primarily because drone warfare is managed through the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, a secretive, non-military government agency.
“First, legitimate participation in warfare is limited to members of the military, not civilians like the CIA. Second, armed conflict is generally limited to international waters and airspace. The authority to strike adversaries sheltering in "neutral" countries is strictly limited to situations of imminent threats and where the country where the threat is located will not or cannot take effective action. It is unlikely that too many of the U.S. strikes really measure up to this standard,” said Glazier
Drone warfare, as it is being conducted, not only sets a dangerous precedent, he said, but the CIA’s controversial involvement further blurs the lines in the rules of war.
“I don't see drones themselves as a major issue of concern, but rather the widespread use to conduct attacks in the territory of third party nations. Drone technology is proliferating, and it is very likely other states will follow the example set by the U.S. It is not in our best interests to see other states freely conducting attacks across national borders; we would surely consider it unacceptable if another country conducted an attack on U.S. territory. And U.S. use of civilians to conduct warfare only further muddies the line between combatants and civilians,” said Glazier.
Benjamin agreed. Drones themselves have their place in the evolution of warfare, but if their use is to be continued and increased, regulation is imperative, she said.
“This technology will come around to haunt us unless we start regulating it,” said Benjamin.