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Armed Conflicts

Controversy and Deadly Destruction Arising from Drone Use

NEW YORK, May 13 2012 (IPS) - Grasshoppers and other insects might become the next generation of drones, if researchers with the Israeli research centre Technion who are studying the movements of these insects succeed. Ultimately, they hope to be able to remotely control where the insects fly.

Since their introduction more than a half-century ago, drones have dramatically increased in complexity, as the Israeli research would suggest. But they also remain as controversial as they are fascinating, as a new book by Medea Benjamin launched in New York in early May, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” demonstrates.

The book is the result of in-depth research on drones, their proliferation and their impact on civilians. It also presents an overview of the controversy surrounding, opposition to and activism against this technology. Benjamin is an activist in and leader of the peace movement and the struggle for human rights and social justice.

Today, fifty countries have acquired regular drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, for either military or civilian use, or for research purposes, says Benjamin. The U.S. Army introduced drones during World War II and the Korean War, but it was not until the Vietnam War that drones were used to gather intelligence.

During the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, the Predator drone –the most common type of unmanned aircraft – was equipped with its own satellite communications system, which was used to gather information on refugee flows and Serbian air defences.

The first ‘killer drones’

During the NATO Kosovo campaign in 1999, however, drones were equipped with missiles, “transforming them from spy planes into killer drones”, Benjamin writes.

Drones currently serve a wide range of purposes, and the title of one chapter in Benjamin’s book aptly reflects the proliferation of drone technology: “Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone”.

The U.S. police use drones to track drug smugglers and to monitor the U.S.-Mexican border, while German police sent out an unmanned vehicle the size of a child’s toy airplane during an anti-nuclear march in 2010.

U.S. “killer drones”, however, have been in use since 2002, primarily in Afghanistan, and since 2004 they have been used in Pakistan. They are also used in Yemen.

In Pakistan, there have been 321 drone strikes since then (as of May 2, 2012), only 52 of which occurred under the administration of former president George W. Bush. An astonishing 269 have been carried under the Obama administration, who took office in 2009.

While the United States has claimed that 175 Al Qaeda suspects are hiding in Pakistan, drone strikes there have killed more than 3,000 people, mostly civilians.

These numbers were presented during the book’s launch by Shazad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, activist and head of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which has conducted research in Pakistan and is trying to obtain compensation from the United States for the families of the unintended victims of drone strikes.

The failures of ‘precision’ weapons

In his talk, Akbar made clear that high-technology precision arms are not always as precise as they’re proclaimed to be. He brought up several examples of whole families that had been blown up by U.S. drones.

The “collateral damage” – military speech for unintended killings – is only one of many objections to drones listed by Benjamin and Akbar.

Another area of concern is the bypassing of legal and judicial instruments, where instead of arresting suspects and bringing them to court, the United States simply kills them.

Akbar told the story of a man called Tarik, an Al Qaeda suspect who was killed by a drone in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad. “Tarik was only one mile away from the U.S. embassy. He could have been arrested and even be tortured in Guantanamo, at least that would have saved his life,” Akbar pointed out somewhat sarcastically.

“This is just racist,” Benjamin said, adding that the U.S. government thought it was legitimate to kill non- U.S. citizens in order to save the lives of its own people.

Whether drones are necessary for national security is a hotly contested idea, with opponents arguing that drones actually increase the danger for the United States in several ways, one of which is by turning people against the country.

In her book, Benjamin also deals with the issue of the legality of unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to Benjamin, former president George W. Bush deemed it a legal tool in the nation’s war on terror. Under President Obama, the U.S. drone program, overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been stepped up significantly.

“It breaks my heart to see how we have let Barack Obama get away with operating beyond the confines of international law,” Benjamin said during the book launch.

Only recently did John Brennan, the U.S. official in charge of counterterrorism, formally admit that the United States engages in attacks using armed drones.

According to Brennan, who spoke on April 30 at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, the drone programme is “legal”, “ethical” and “wise”.

He added that the United States was respecting national sovereignty and international law, but he refused to apologise for civilian killings resulting from attacks by this deadly weapon.


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