Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Europe Plans Spies in the Skies

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 16 2009 (IPS) - Warplanes similar to those used to bomb civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be flying in Europe’s skies within the next few years, under a scheme being prepared by Brussels officials.

Pilotless drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – are regarded as so lethal when armed that some top military personnel have advocated that they be withdrawn from the battlefield. David Kilcullen, an Australian general who has advised U.S. forces in Iraq, said during the summer that while drones had killed 14 Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan since 2006, they had also killed about 700 innocent people in that country.

The European Defence Agency – an EU body tasked with boosting arms spending in the Union – is now embracing UAVs. Alexander Weis, the EDA’s chief executive, has told the European Parliament that he hopes to have drones flying on a test basis in Europe’s civilian airspace by 2012. Although UAVs are not now equipped to spot what is flying around them, Weis hopes that this problem can be overcome through the development of “sense and avoid” technology.

An EDA source said that the UAVs in question will not be armed and are intended primarily for surveillance purposes and for rescue missions.

But research undertaken at the EU’s behest indicates that no neat distinction can be made between drones intended for military and civilian purposes. A 2006 study requested by the European Commission from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan concluded that the growing number of UAVs in Europe are being bought for military reasons but that they could be adapted to monitor public gatherings or for maritime patrol. Italy subsequently used UAVs as part of the security operation surrounding the summit for the Group of Eight (G8) top industrialised countries in L’Aquila last year.

Brussels sources say that the Pentagon is taking keen interest in the European Union’s work on drones. The U.S. is hoping that the EDA will pave the way for global standards allowing drones to be used in all airspace, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Following the Sep. 11 attacks, Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. defence secretary, authorised the use of UAVs for targeted assassinations. While many defence analysts have praised the “accuracy” of UAVs in hitting their targets in a way that minimises civilian casualties, there have been numerous incidents where they have killed non-combatants. In August, a Predator drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, a prominent Taliban figure, in Pakistan. But it also killed 11 others, including his wife and both her parents.

Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade told IPS that the use of drones by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan has “lowered the barrier” inhibiting other countries from acquiring these warplanes. “UAVs are the kind of stuff that are developing in a way that is at first controversial but then can be tried in another way.”

As Israel is a leading manufacturer of UAVs, it is expected that technology tested in attacks on the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon will be used by the EDA programme. Although drones were first used by the U.S. in south China and Vietnam in the 1960s, Israel was the first country to make regular and widespread use of them, particularly during the 1982 bombardment of Lebanon. In a report published in June this year, Human Rights Watch detailed how Israeli drones bombed several family homes, businesses and a United Nations school in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Such carnage has not stopped some EU countries from buying Israeli-made UAVs. In March, the Dutch ministry of defence signed a contract worth 53 million dollars for drones from the Israeli firm Aeronautics. The weapons are meant for Dutch troops fighting in Afghanistan.

The EDA’s work follows a project on the development of drones being financed from the EU’s scientific research budget. Among the projects financed by that budget – worth 53 billion euros (77 billion dollars) between 2007 and 2013 – is one designed to devise a blueprint for flying UAVs in civilian airspace by 2015.

Ben Hayes from the civil liberties organisation Statewatch said that it is “extremely worrying” that the EU’s scientific research funds are being used to support the arms industry.

Daniel Keoghan from the European Union Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris told IPS that promoting UAVs is “probably the most important” work being undertaken by the European Defence Agency in terms of developing new technology.

Keoghan said he could understand why the deployment of drones for surveillance would be a cause of concern for many citizens, but argued that the EDA is merely carrying out tasks assigned to it by EU governments. “If I was a civil libertarian, I would very much be focused on what governments are doing and why they think we need this technology,” he said. “The EDA is just a servant.”

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