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The setup is familiar by now, if only because the image has long-since bled into pop culture ubiquity. A four-wheel-drive races across the desert floor somewhere in the badlands of eastern Yemen, a long wake of dust trailing behind in the baking air.

Unbeknownst to the five occupants of the vehicle, this scene exists also in cyberspace. The car’s precise location, its speed and bearing, a detailed dossier on one of the passengers and considered speculation on the others. A pixelated image of the tiny glittering speck is routed through a small constellation of satellites, through a ground station in central Australia, parsed through an operations centre in the United States, and bounced back again to the reaper drone wheeling two miles above. The feedback loop is seamless, conducted at the speed of light.

Time’s up. An anti-tank missile howls out of the sky. The vehicle detonates.

It will later be alleged that one of the dead is a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group who shares its political lineage with the network that flew passenger aircraft into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Two things about terrorism were burned into the western collective consciousness on that bleak morning: terrorists kill indiscriminately, and they have casual regard for international law. The fiery catastrophe in downtown Manhattan casts long shadows even today.

Australia is a long way from Yemen. It is also well-insulated from the fierce debates that rage in the United States and halls of the United Nations about the wisdom and legality of US president Barack Obama’s radical expansion of drone warfare into half a dozen countries. So when it was revealed in April 2014 that one of the casualties of the drone strike in back-country Yemen was Australian and another a dual Australian–New Zealand citizen, we paused.

Journalists from the Australian press tried to piece the story together. They didn’t have much to go on: a terse statement from the Australian and New Zealand governments, and some brief comments from an unnamed intelligence source. The two Australians were alleged to have been placed on an Australian Federal Police watch list because of their associations with AQAP, and Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, sharply denied any prior knowledge of the operation that killed them.

Then… nothing. Over the horizon, the war on terror continues, and in wars, people are killed. Christopher Havard, formerly of Townsville, Queensland. Muslim bin John, formerly of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Australia got on with the business of the early 21st century. An unreasonably warm summer. A royal visit to Uluru, not far from the Pine Gap joint defence facility that probably transacted the extrajudicial death sentence last November. The harshest, most ideologically unhinged budget in modern history. The State of Origin came and went.

The time for Havard’s family to raise $30,000 to repatriate his remains ran out, and now the drone strike that killed two Australians is buried under the accumulated strata of news, gossip and sport laid down in successive months.

That is how our attorney-general would like it to remain: forgotten and inconsequential. In two estimates hearings in late May he took a brief respite from the doomed defence of his racial vilification amendments to address my questions on the killing of the Australians last summer. In six years of sharing a workplace with senator George Brandis, I’ve developed personal strategies to deal with his pompous blend of condescension and inadequacy. I must admit, they failed me the other night.

I asked whether the government was confident that such strikes are in fact legal at international law. The attorney-general replied “I am not aware that the Australian government has a view of legality of these matters in any event,” and later, “this has nothing to do with Australia”.

The rest of the conversation was the usual smug invocation of national security, the great blindfold through which the country shall not be permitted to see – for our own safety of course. That this is “nothing to do with Australia” demonstrates Brandis’ calculated ignorance: jointly operated installations like Pine Gap almost certainly play a central role in drone warfare in the Middle East and Africa, supposedly with the “full knowledge and concurrence” of Australian authorities.

The fact that finding yourself on an AFP watchlist – not charged with any crime in particular – can result in a death penalty meted out on the other side of the world, is bad enough. The US bureau of investigative journalism estimated more than a thousand civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, including dozens of children. The real number of civilians killed in these assassinations is likely to be much higher, as the US military considers any male of fighting age who happens to be in the blast radius of a listed target to be a combatant, unless post-strike evaluation shows otherwise.

For targeted communities on the ground, being killed in a drone strike is indistinguishable from being killed by a cruise missile or a piloted warplane. Nothing exempts the operators of remote-piloted vehicles from either human rights law or the laws of war just because the technology is novel. In a speech in Pakistan in 2013, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon noted:

[T]he use of armed drones, like any other weapon, should be subject to long-standing rules of international law, including international humanitarian law … Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes and civilian casualties…

The framers of the UN Charter, working after the trauma of the second world war, laid down the modern legal foundation for non-aggression between states. We can hardly blame them for failing to foresee the emergence of stateless terror networks like Al Qaeda, the privatisation of war, or the relentless development of ever-more autonomous weapons systems.

The US government has relied on a combination of secrecy, remoteness, legal ambiguity and the overriding imperatives of the war on terror to insist that their drone strikes are lawful, do not amount to extrajudicial killings, and minimise civilian harm in all instances. The question for us is twofold.

First, the legal standard we accept from our ally is the standard we will be stuck with when unregulated swarms of weaponised Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Indonesian drones begin incinerating people in the name of their own legally dubious wars on “terror”.

Second, the march of technology is removing human agency further from the decision to strike. Serious civil society debates are now underway on the best path to formally ban fully-autonomous weapons, using some of the same legal tools applied to chemical and biological weapons.

The first step is to acknowledge that turning a blind eye to this conduct, on behalf of our ally the US – or anyone else – is wrong. Superpowers kill with little regard for international law. In the age of the drone, an increasingly porous and borderless world, what constitutes genuine human security is now an open question.

Originally posted in The Guardian

The Guardian

 

Protesters march to the perimeter fence of RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire to protest its use as a centre for drone piloting in Afghanistan. Photograph: Matthew Cooper/PA

Protesters march to the perimeter fence of RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire to protest its use as a centre for drone piloting in Afghanistan. Photograph: Matthew Cooper/PA

Hundreds of peace campaigners gathered outside an RAF base today to protest against armed drones being operated from Britain to conduct missions in Afghanistan.

Around 400 demonstrators took part in a march from Lincoln to a rally at nearby RAF Waddington, which assumed control of British drone missions in Afghanistan earlier this week.

The Guardian revealed on Thursday that the RAF had begun remotely operating its Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles from the Lincolnshire airbase.

The drones were previously operated from a United States Air Force base in Nevada.

Chris Cole, a coordinator of the Drone Campaign Network, said the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to wage war raised numerous legal, ethical and moral issues. Speaking near RAF Waddington’s perimeter fence, Mr Cole said: “This is the new home of drone warfare in the UK and there are questions about the growing use of these armed, unmanned systems.

“Because of their remote nature, there is no risk to any of our forces and that makes it easier to launch weapons and makes it much easier for politicians to get involved in warfare.” Read More

Jon Boone and Peter Beaumont | The Guardian

Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan last month after more than four years of self-imposed exile. Photograph: Fareed Khan/AP

Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan last month after more than four years of self-imposed exile. Photograph: Fareed Khan/AP

Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf has admitted giving permission for the CIA to launch drone attacks inside his country, directly contradicting repeated claims by the Pakistani government that it has never authorised drone strikes.

His comments in a CNN interview screened on Thursday night follow US media claims this week that Pakistani officials were for years intimately involved in the US drone campaign in the country. The unexpected admission breaks Pakistan’s policy of blanket denial of involvement. Last month following a visit to Islamabad Ben Emmerson QC, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, said he had been given assurances that there was no “tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory”.

For its part the Obama administration has defended the legality of its drone activities and said strikes are conducted only with consent from the states involved.

Musharraf said Pakistan gave permission “only on a few occasions, when a target was absolutely isolated and [there was] no chance of collateral damage”.

He said the strikes were discussed “at the military [and] intelligence level” and cleared only if “there was no time for our own [special operations task force] and military to act. That was … maybe two or three times only”. Read More

Owen Bowcott | The Guardian

Strikes will be studied to assess extent of any civilian casualties, identity of militants targeted and legality of actions.

Strikes will be studied to assess extent of any civilian casualties, identity of militants targeted and legality of actions.

A United Nations investigation into targeted killings will examine drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to the British lawyer heading the inquiry.

Ben Emmerson QC, a UN special rapporteur, will reveal the full scope of his review which will include checks on military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in UK operations in Afghanistan, US strikes in Pakistan, as well as in the Sahel region of Africa where the conflict in Mali has erupted. It will also take evidence on Israeli drone attacks in Palestinian territories.

About 20 or 30 strikes – selected as representative of different types of attacks – will be studied to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes in countries where the UN has not formally recognised there is a conflict.

The inquiry will report to the UN general assembly in New York this autumn. Depending on its findings, it may recommend further action. Emmerson has previously suggested some drone attacks – particularly those known as “double tap” strikes where rescuers going to the aid of a first blast have become victims of a follow-up strike – could possibly constitute a “war crime”. Read More

Naomi Wolf | The Guardian

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

By 2020, it is estimated that as many as 30,000 drones will be in use in US domestic airspace. Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

People often ask me, in terms of my argument about “ten steps” that mark the descent to a police state or closed society, at what stage we are. I am sorry to say that with the importation of what will be tens of thousands of drones, by both US military and by commercial interests, into US airspace, with a specific mandate to engage in surveillance and with the capacity for weaponization – which is due to begin in earnest at the start of the new year – it means that the police state is now officially here.

In February of this year, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act, with its provision to deploy fleets of drones domestically. Jennifer Lynch, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that this followed a major lobbying effort, “a huge push by […] the defense sector” to promote the use of drones in American skies: 30,000 of them are expected to be in use by 2020, some as small as hummingbirds – meaning that you won’t necessarily see them, tracking your meeting with your fellow-activists, with your accountant or your congressman, or filming your cruising the bars or your assignation with your lover, as its video-gathering whirs.

Others will be as big as passenger planes. Business-friendly media stress their planned abundant use by corporations: police in Seattle have already deployed them.

An unclassified US air force document reported by CBS news expands on this unprecedented and unconstitutional step – one that formally brings the military into the role of controlling domestic populations on US soil, which is the bright line that separates a democracy from a military oligarchy. Read More

George Monbiot | The Guardian

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. The children killed by US drones in north-west Pakistan 'have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and teddy bears'.

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. The children killed by US drones in north-west Pakistan ‘have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and teddy bears’.

“Mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts … These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” Every parent can connect with what President Barack Obama said about the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut. There can scarcely be a person on earth with access to the media who is untouched by the grief of the people of that town.

It must follow that what applies to the children murdered there by a deranged young man also applies to the children murdered in Pakistan by a sombre American president. These children are just as important, just as real, just as deserving of the world’s concern. Yet there are no presidential speeches or presidential tears for them, no pictures on the front pages of the world’s newspapers, no interviews with grieving relatives, no minute analysis of what happened and why. Read More

Karen McVeigh | The Guardian

A Reaper drone, as used by the CIA and American military in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama’s administration is in the process of drawing up a formal rulebook that will set out the circumstances in which targeted assassination by unmanned drones is justified, according to reports.

The New York Times, citing two unnamed sources, said explicit guidelines were being drawn up amid disagreement between the CIA and the departments of defense, justice and state over when lethal action is acceptable.

Human-rights groups and peace groups opposed to the CIA-operated targeted-killing programme, which remains officially classified, said the administration had already rejected international law in pursuing its drone operations.

“To say they are rewriting the rulebook implies that there isn’t already a rulebook” said Jameel Jaffer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy. “But what they are already doing is rejecting a rulebook – of international law – that has been in place since [the second world war].”

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