Antiwar Group organizes summit, but most speakers preaching to choir
“I don’t see what the down side of drones is,” says Chad Waldo, a former US Navy sailor. “They are a necessity for today’s time. Modern warfare requires drones in certain situations. They keep our soldiers out of harm’s way, especially when military missions require them to be behind enemy lines.” He continued. “I know drones are at the cutting edge of modern warfare, but I have heard that they have gotten us into some trouble with other countries,” said Ramona, a health industry employee.
This may be the opinion of many Americans in the United States, but on Saturday, May 4th, a summit was held in the heart of Washington DC, regarding drones and the threat they pose to modern society. This event was organized by CodePink, a women’s antiwar group, which was founded by Medea Benjamin, a journalist and anti-war advocate.
At this event the speakers were impressive and diverse. Speakers included Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer recently made famous by the media uproar that followed when the US barred him from entering the country to speak on the topic of drones at Columbia University Law School and this summit in DC. He represents noncombatant victims of the CIA’s covert drone warfare program in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province. Later he was granted a visa. Also amongst the exemplary speakers in attendance were James Cavallaro from Stanford University Law School, Amna Buttar, a medical doctor and a Parliamentary Representative in Pakistan, and Rafia Zakaria, an attorney advocate for drone victims.
What was unusual about the summit was the audience. It consisted of about 90% media professionals, many of whom were journalists and photojournalists. The rest included advocates, representatives from other advocacy groups and a number of retired government employees; like one individual who stood up and stated that he had 45 years’ experience in espionage policy. He went on to say, “The government is weakest on this issue in transparency… If you want to fight this issue successfully, you need to move on the issue of transparency and accountability.” Perhaps, the audience was an indicator of how limited the understanding of drone warfare is amongst the general public.
Although it is true that drones were used after the earthquake in Japan to observe radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant, that after a massive flood in Australia, drones were used to observe the effects of the flood, that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that patrols the seas for illegal whaling activities uses drones to help them cover vast areas of the ocean, and even Occupy Wall Street, in New York, built their own $300.00 dollar drone to observe police activity. These “positive” uses of drones are insignificant in number compared to the number of covert activities and strikes made with drones throughout the world.
In the opinion of the great majority of those in attendance at the drone Summit, such activities are simply state-sponsored assassinations with a significant degree of collateral damage. These drones have no discerning capabilities. They cannot assess a situation and correct for any mistakes like a human being may do. They simply complete the mission with no consideration to diplomacy, capture, or negotiation. They allow for no human risk on the part of the US government and their clandestine nature allow for no review or accountability. They are referred to as “clean” strikes which are intended to kill and extinguish the target and any public relations problem in an instant.
It is interesting to note that shortly after this summit, there seems to have been an explosion of drone awareness on twitter and other social media and news outlets. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry condemned US drone attacks recently conducted in North Waziristan on Saturday, May 5th. “Pakistan has consistently maintained that these illegal attacks are a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and are in contravention of international law,” Ten people were reported killed in the latest attack and a house was completely destroyed in the attack. The attack was located less than 2 miles from the Afghan border. The Foreign Minister went on to say, “It is our considered view that the strategic disadvantages of such attacks far outweigh their tactical advantages, and are therefore, totally counterproductive,”
What is so disturbing about this and other drone attacks is that rescue workers fear being killed because they have entered the strike zone. This results in additional “collateral damage” and/or delays rescue work. Just in this one attack, it is stated that four drones were seen flying in the air shortly before the strike.
The case of Anwar Al-Awlaki, his assassination and the assassination of his 16 year old son, (both US citizens) was discussed at the summit. It was stated that his son was claimed to have been a 21 year old terrorist by the US government, but later documents like a birth certificate were brought forth by the family to show that this was not true. Not only were these individuals killed without due process, proving in a court of law that they were guilty of any crime, but the court system is granting immunity. In essence it was argued that the judicial branch of the government is not fulfilling its mandate and preserving the balance of power.
Also discussed was the issue of what has been termed “signature strikes”. The individuals targeted in these strikes are targeted based on patterns of behavior. An example may be if an individual is known to frequent a mosque that is thought to be a known gathering place for terrorists and has other patterns of behavior that coincide with other suspicious activity, that individual may become a signature target. “Guatanamo Bay is considered an “illegal detention” facility, it does allow for some recourse, but illegal killing allows for no recourse” stated James Cavallaro of Stanford University Law School.
Amna Buttar, a Pakistani Parliamentary representative, stated, “I cannot understand how you can wage war on terrorism with terror… Imagine yourself a 20 year old man or a 30 year old woman …walking in the street and always wondering if a silent drone will come and blow you up. What greater terror is there?” She went on to say that “Killing at the press of a button is immoral and unethical.” But she did not explain what form of killing, if any, could be acceptable. Is it implied that if a cause is worth fighting for it means that you should be prepared to kill in person and be prepared to die for it and give your opponent the chance to do the same. On the other hand, one may ask, is she offering her son to go into warfare? Is she expecting my son to go?
In the opinion of Medea Benjamin, in her book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control”, the course of international engagement changed dramatically after 9/11. Gone from the landscape was negotiation, peace talks, reconciliation and, except for the military, the other branches of government have gone silent. The book ends with a warning that drone warfare will spread worldwide. Already over 50 nations have this technology and use it. The world is looking to the United States for setting the bar on what are acceptable rules of engagement when it comes to drone warfare. She also closes with a suggestion that drones will become commonplace even here in the United States where our lives will become transparent and our most private moments can be monitored, all for the precious gift of national security. If we don’t set enforceable rules now, it may be too late to stop the powers that be from doing whatever they like.