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Australia follows US drone lead

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Fatima Measham |  08 February 2012

In November last year, American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith met Tariq Aziz in Islamabad. Smith was at a traditional jirga, a meeting with Pashtun elders, as part of his work with Reprieve, an international human rights organisation. He was there in order to understand from a local perspective the clandestine drone war being conducted by the United States in Pakistan.

Toward the end of the meeting, 16-year-old Tariq volunteered to help collect physical evidence linking American drone strikes to civilian casualties. He never got the chance. Three days after he met Smith, he and a 12-year old cousin were killed by such a strike on their way to pick up an aunt.

Yet President Barack Obama recently stated that the use of drones in Pakistan 'is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists'.

He also claimed that 'drones have not caused a huge number of casualties'. But there is no magic number that somehow makes civilian casualties acceptable. For Tariq's aunt, and many others like her, there is only desolation.

The civilian numbers killed by drone strikes can be difficult to extract. Journalists are barred from investigating targeted areas, and both sides inflate figures according to their agenda.

But a study by the New America Foundation found that the 114 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the beginning of 2010 killed between 830 and 1210 individuals. Around 550 to 850 were described as militants. This means a third of those who were killed were civilians.

Despite the supposed sophistication of drones, innocent people die.

Drones, otherwise known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft), had been mainly used for surveillance during the Clinton years. However, advances in technology, as well as heightened dismay over American fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq, have driven the development of drones for deploying missiles in Pakistan and Yemen.

The argument is that they can more accurately conduct lethal action, either by the military or the CIA, without any risk to personnel. American pilots may now safely engage in combat by remote, literally from the other side of the world. But the risks for ordinary people on the ground have not changed.

These civilian deaths are drawing attention to Washington's 'awkward, open secret'. Drone strikes have quadrupled since Obama took office. The number of drones themselves has also increased, with the US surging ahead in a drone arms race. Defence analysts say others are not far behind, with over 50 countries having built or bought UAVs.

Australia is phasing in UAVs as part of its Defence Capability Plan. The initial fleet will be mainly for maritime surveillance, with a LOT (life of type) of only ten years. This is 'to ensure that the ADF is positioned to take advantage of technological advancements'.

The fact is that our special forces are already being trained to use drones in combat. Last year, senior officers used American drones in strikes against Taliban insurgents.

We are already at the next stage of global conflict. Yet legal restraints or even public debate about the use of drones have so far been alarmingly muted.

Signature strikes, aimed at clusters of unidentified men perceived to be militants (as opposed to 'personality strikes' which target specific high-profile terrorist leaders), form the bulk of CIA operations. They highly endanger civilians. This is a clear contravention of international humanitarian law, which upholds the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants.

That a civilian agency is pursuing military objectives is also disturbing. Some CIA strikes last year actually drew complaints from the Pentagon and the State Department, as civilian casualties only sharpened diplomatic tensions between the US and Pakistan.

The US is driving a drone industry in the same way it drove the nuclear arms race. The technology has surged ahead of philosophical, moral or legal inquiry about its use. It is normalising pre-emptive strikes, with no clear accountability for future prosecution. It has removed a significant impediment to bellicose foreign policy: the prospect of loss of life and injury to young men and women in uniform.

These conditions do not bode well for us, even as it is too late to wind back the technology. Even so, it must be met with the same resistance that continues to meet nuclear weapons and landmines. International scrutiny is urgently needed. The world community must move quickly to highlight the legal implications and moral turpitude of negligently killing innocent people by remote.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, blogger and tweeter


 



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Submitted comments

He consorted with militants and was possibly directly involved in war activities. War is War. Innocent people die all the time.

Give me a break 09 February 2012

Perhaps, Fatima, the CIA should use IEDs and suicide bombers. These are much more able to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

MJ 09 February 2012

Terrorists taking out thousands of civilians worldwide is also against humanitarian law. Somewhere along the way restraint and respect from both sides has to prevail. Sadly Pakistan over the years has ignored or failed to detect terrorists hiding, training and operating from within it's borders. It's about time all countries 'normalised' their activities and treated human life as the most precious commodity on earth and put aside religious differences for the sake of peace.

Paul Belci 09 February 2012

What is the in principle argument against drones here? That one can remotely attack one's enemy? Perhaps we should throw away all our guns, bazookas and other projectile weapons, and go in with swords alone? Hang on, even the sword is a "remote" attack weapon of sorts. So ... bare hands?

HH 09 February 2012

In our imperfect world it seems necessary for nations to maintain armed forces but the influence of the military supply industry, especially in the USA, seems to be excessive. As Kenneth Galbraith comments in 'The Good Society', 'The American military establishment effectively and independently decides on its own budget, on the extent and the use of the money it receives.' Unfortunately this sets an example for other countries- 'the arms race' - and worthwhile, even essential, services such as health and education are deprived of sufficient funds.

Bob Corcoran 09 February 2012

-Drones? Now, does it matter if drones wear boots or fly? Drones direct the wars we all enjoy so much, drones fight in them, fly in them, sail in them. Drones sit in parliaments voting to send rones to wars. Drones vote for drones voting for war, and love it. 'It's just like Gallipoli again' 'It's our brave boys''war brings out the real spirit of the Aussie' and so on, and on, and on. We need to look beyond the objection to these latest versions of the war drone and ask ourselves why we are so eager to support the flesh drones who glory in the wars in every generation.

janice wallace 09 February 2012

The sad irony is that in fighting a war to defend America’s way of life, the US is employing a means that directly undermines one of its own keystones, respect for the rule of law. It goes beyond weak legal restraints. As Philip Alston, a NY Uni law professor who served as the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary has noted, "There is no meaningful domestic accountability for a burgeoning program of international killing." Alston argues "The result is the steady undermining of the international rule of law, and the setting of legal precedents which will inevitably come back to haunt the United States before long when invoked by other states with highly problematic agendas." Once again, Lincoln’s warning to a free nation that the greatest danger will come not from abroad but ‘must spring up amongst us’ is prescient.

Evan 09 February 2012

Fatima, You write with passion of the injustices and moral turpitude of attacking a deadly enemy and ,as in all war, the destruction of innocent life caught in the crossfire. I suspect that when an enemy chooses to operate from a non-military establishment and to use the shield of a civilian community without military identification,innocent people will inevitably be killed. Perhaps that is the greater moral turpitude for which the government of Pakistan is responsible. Terrorist Islam on the other hand does not target military establishments in the main but rather deliberately attacks innocent civilians. The deaths of these civilians are not.the side effect of attacking a military enemy. It would be interesting to read your assessment of the morality of this activity and what the urgent responsibilities of the world might be in response. Perhaps then , with an argument that assesses both sides of the coin might suggest a solution which partisan appraisal is unlikely to offer.

john frawley 09 February 2012

There is nothing new about drones. They were used in WW2 by Germany (V1 and V2). We had changes mainly of technological nature and in the nature of its use. Instead of using drones as a terror weapon as in WW2, they are used to eye pick high value military targets in order to reduce civilian casualties. It would be irresponsible for the USA and or Australia not to use technology to save the lives of its soldiers.

Beat Odermatt 09 February 2012

Well said, John Frawley.

Patrick James 09 February 2012

As always, the problem is not the technology but the way it is applied. Moral turpitude exists on all sides in the undeclared combat zones of insurgency. Target acquisition is a deadly science and profoundly inaccurate in areas where someone can be a combatant one moment and innocent civilian the next. The US should pay more attention to its rules of engagement, yes. But drones are effective weapons (especially as deterrents).

Hector 09 February 2012

If it weren't for the rise of secular Mid-East dictators propped up by the West, the fundamentalist Islamic militant movement would not be such a threat to world stability. Drones are merely are faceless and cowardly way for the US and its allies to deal with a problem of their own making.

AURELIUS 11 February 2012

Thanks everyone for engaging with my article. It is difficult to disagree that in war, civilians sometimes get killed. But I reject the idea that the conduct of terrorists makes it permissible for western forces to negligently kill non combatants. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that CIA drones have struck rescuers and funerals in Pakistan <http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/02/04/obama-terror-drones-cia-tactics-in-pakistan-include-targeting-rescuers-and-funerals/>, which do not fit military objectives (as defined by international humanitarian law). The legitimacy of drone targets ought to be a greater burden than it currently seems to be. Otherwise, where lies the difference between our enemies and ourselves? I also reiterate that the use of drones only serves the war hawks. Wars may be part of our global reality, but we forget that they are not the only solution to conflict, and when we wage them, they must be just both in cause and conduct. It is difficult to imagine 'winning' any war where the death of civilians turns subsequent generations against us.

Fatima Measham 13 February 2012

Thanks everyone for engaging with my article. It is difficult to disagree that in war, civilians sometimes get killed. But I reject the idea that the conduct of terrorists makes it permissible for western forces to negligently kill non combatants. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that CIA drones have struck rescuers and funerals in Pakistan <http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/02/04/obama-terror-drones-cia-tactics-in-pakistan-include-targeting-rescuers-and-funerals/>, which do not fit military objectives (as defined by international humanitarian law). The legitimacy of drone targets ought to be a greater burden than it currently seems to be. Otherwise, where lies the difference between our enemies and ourselves? I also reiterate that the use of drones only serves the war hawks. Wars may be part of our global reality, but we forget that they are not the only solution to conflict, and when we wage them, they must be just both in cause and conduct. It is difficult to imagine 'winning' any war where the death of civilians turns subsequent generations against us.

Fatima Measham 13 February 2012

It''s fascinating to see a number of readers of Eureka Street (a Catholic Christian magazine) presume that killing is a legitimate solution to violence. Only complex (and, I believe, erroneous) sophistry allows us to distort Jesus' teaching and make violence seem acceptable. The truth is that followers of Jesus have been offered a radical new way to deal with violence. Oh, that we might try it!

cameron gaffney 13 February 2012

Cameron Gaffney, the Church long ago exercised some complex sophistry, as you put it, and came up with the just war theory. Reject it if you like, but I for one am glad that we do not refrain from using violence when we would otherwise be faced with eradication.

Not every individual or nation out there has peaceful intentions. We have the right to use proportionate means to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

MJ 13 February 2012

Fatima, it is sad to say, but I think that many of the subsequent generations that you talk of, would hate the West regardless of any civilian deaths. Many of the people in Pakistan and Afghanistan have visceral hatred of the West. Even those that migrate to Western countries still maintain this loathing and rejection of the countries that they move to. They do not seek to integrate but proudly proclaim their contempt and rejection of the culture of the countries that have generously accepted them.

Patrick James 13 February 2012

"But I reject the idea that the conduct of terrorists makes it permissible for western forces to negligently kill non combatants." Well, who doesn't? So Fatima's argument has morphed from a rejection of drones per se (it seemed to me) to a rejection of the negligent killing of innocents, which no Catholic of whatever stripe, or decent human being indeed, can ever endorse. I think drones, like the longbowmen at Agincourt, are a brilliant innovation. They can and should be used by just warriors (arguably not Henry V - vide St Joan of Arc) to protect their legitimate interests. I also agree with the Church and Fatima that intentional or negligent killing of innocents is gravely evil. Such killing may well be happening with increased intensity under President Obama. Who would be surprised, even at Eureka Street, given his notorious disrespect for human life at its most vulnerable within the borders of the U.S.? Nevertheless, I wouldn't be automatically placing my faith in the report of the leftist Bureau of Investigative Journalism, notwithstanding its claims to objectivity. Readers who closely scrutinise their report Fatima cites will undoubtedly form their own view on that. To me, it's just a little one-sided.

HH 13 February 2012

CAMERON GAFFNEY - I can't see why you are fascinated as to why commentators like MJ use sophistry to justify war. War is an accepted (albeit not acceptable) part of Christian history. The just war theory has taken away the moral sting of the Crusades, The Inquisition and Pedophilia cover-ups.

AURELIUS 14 February 2012

"The just war theory has taken away the moral sting of the ... Pedophilia cover-ups." Really? Do tell.

HH 14 February 2012

If you can justify killing someone in the name of Christendom and western progress, surely it's also for the greater good that Holy Mother Church not be weighed down by petty matters such as the sexual abuse of minors.

AUREIUS 14 February 2012

It is interesting from all the comments that no one mentions the tragic death of Tariq Aziz.

This drone activity by the American military is another example of American arrogance and insensability. They behaved in the same way in Viet Nam, Iraq, the Middle East and South America. The reason that the Americans behave in this way is that their economy is totally dependent on the military industry: the American military budget exceeds the total of that of all the rest of the world.

I believe that countries such as Australia and America should not have a military presence in Pakistan and Afganistan, but should assist with civilian policing.
People should not take seriously the news and current affairs coverage fron Pakistan and Afganistan by the Australian mainstream media, especially the ABC. I heard from an Australian bloke who was visiting relatives in Peshawar, Pakistan and while there he spoke with his mother in Australia, who told him of reported riots in Peshawar - he laughed and thought she was joking because Peshawar was peaceful at the time.
Australian people should also understand that acts of terrorism and civil disobedience in places such as Pakistan and Afganistan are the result of frustration and desperation because of undemocratic governments and lack of opportunities for acceptable standards of housing, education, health services and job opportunities.

Mark Doyle 14 February 2012

So Aurelius, what would you propose a country should do if it is faced with an aggressive and expansionist power? All means of diplomacy have failed. Do they just sit there and take it? Or what?

MJ 14 February 2012

Aurelius: "If you can justify killing someone in the name of Christendom and western progress" As I suspected, you don't seem to have the traditional just war theory in mind at all, but a horrific caricature. Do some research, ... I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

HH 15 February 2012

I accept the just war theory has some validity if it's guidelines are followed strictly, which I doubt happens in modern warfare, but my previous comments are merely making the point that whatever moral framework we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus is a pacifist and his words made that clear. "Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." It seems inconsistent that the church has adapted its teachings on warfare to offer guidance in changing political/global circumstances, but it hasn't been able to do this with teachings on sexual morality ie premarital sex, divorce, homosexuality and contraception. References in the Scriptures about not taking up arms are a lot clearer and far more frequent than references to sexual matters.

AURELIUS 16 February 2012

Aurelius, I agree that much that goes on in modern warfare might push the envelope in terms of just war theory. But it's difficult to see Jesus as a straight pacifist, in the sense rejecting all violence and retaliation. He praised the centurion with the sick child for his faith, without rebuking him for being a soldier. He drove the sellers and money changers out of the Temple with a whip. Etc etc. The just war theory is consistently derived from moral principles such as: do not directly or recklessly kill the innocent, which apply to all human beings in history, being part of the natural law, as is the corpus of teaching on sexual morality.

HH 16 February 2012

HH, you refer to 'the natural law' as if it's obvious what values you are talking about. Morality based on natural law is about good intentions and taking action in good conscience.

AURELIUS 17 February 2012

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