Ban these armed and crewless aircraft

25 October 2012

Ban these armed and crewless aircraft

After two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States are, in the course of their so-called war in terror, making ever more frequent use of drones. These uncrewed aircraft are being deployed to kill suspected terrorists without any form of trial.

Jasper van Dijk and Harry van Bommel are Members of Parliament for the SP

The United States values these aircraft for their effectiveness. In reality the drones are responsible for a great many civilian deaths, force extensive regions to live in fear, and are in complete conflict with international law. It is for these reasons that we are calling for a moratorium on their use.

In response to the increasing use of drones by the US armed forces resistance is also growing. On 7th October the first ever demonstration took place, in Pakistan, specifically against drone attacks. Criticism from legal experts and human rights organisations is also on the increase, for obvious reasons.

These were the conclusions of Mary Ellen O’Connell, an expert in international law as it relates to armed conflict, when she argued recently that the hundreds of drone attacks which have taken place outside recognised regions of armed conflict were violations of the right to life. She listed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as examples of places where this is occurring.

Together with other organisations Amnesty International has concluded that current American policy allows extrajudicial executions to take place throughout almost the entire world. The United Nations rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, South African Christof Heyns, links this specifically to the onset of the so-called war on terrorism, stating that he has difficulty in seeing how a drone attack can possibly be a lawful reaction to events which took place on September 11th, 2001.

The constant presence of drones in tribal areas has frightening consequences. With a drone attack death can strike at any moment, and from out of thin air, leaving people to live in a permanent condition of fear. Many Pakistanis have, as a result developed serious psychological complaints. This goes also for children, who are for that reason regularly removed from school. Because the bigger the group the more it is a potential target, gatherings, even for funerals, are avoided. In fact, public life in general is becoming to a large extent impossible. These and other damaging consequences are comprehensively described in a recent report from two leading American universities, Stanford in California and SUNY in New York. Their conclusion is that people in the Pakistani tribal areas are being terrorised by the drones.

Quite apart from the fact that drones lead to widespread disruption of a society, President Obama’s policy is counterproductive. The researchers responsible for the report found evidence that drone attacks lead to recruitment to armed groups. Even before the report was issued, the New York Times was arguing that drones had replaced Guantánamo Bay as the best recruiting agency for armed militant movements. Opinion polls in Pakistan indicate an enormous growth in angry rejection of the US policy.

The growing abhorrence of the attacks is explained in part by the large numbers of civilian deaths. The British Bureau of Investigative Journalism has the most extensive and reliable database on the numbers of victims of such deaths. In Pakistan alone 3000 people have died in some 350 attacks, hundreds of whom were civilians, including to date 176 children. According to the report cited above from two American universities scarcely 2% of these victims have been ranking military officers.

That the Americans, despite all of this evidence, continue to maintain that the number of dead civilians can at most be counted on the fingers of two hands, is the result of an utterly implausible method of counting them. A few months ago the New York Times revealed that the Obama administration in fact considers all men of military age in an affected area to be soldiers.

On top of this, reports of drone attacks on aid workers are constantly coming in. These attacks are by definition in conflict with international law. After an initial wave of attacks, local people and aid workers rush to the area in order to offer care to survivors. The aid workers who have hurried to help are killed in their turn. UN rapporteur Heyns calls such attacks ‘war crimes’.

The deployment of drones also changes the way in which war is fought, with talk of so-called ‘cubicle warriors’ – soldiers who spend the hours from nine to five harrying the enemy before returning to their families at six for their evening meal. This is undoubtedly comfortable for the ‘pilots’ themselves, but the distance makes the inflicting of suffering on a large scale much easier.

The illegal, disproportionate and counterproductive deployment of drones is unfortunately continually growing ever further. It is a bad omen that the US Air Force is currently training more drone pilots. The Dutch government is maintaining its silence about the disastrous consequences of this latest murder weapon. Instead of a powerful condemnation, our government wants to acquire drones which can be armed with rockets.

The government would do better to argue at the international level for a moratorium on the use of armed drones.

This opinion piece was first published, in Dutch, on 25th October 2012 in the national daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

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