February 13, 2014

Killer drones

If United States (US) President Obama and his Wall Street patrons would have their way, US troops, warships and aircraft will soon be pre-stationed (read: permanently based) in Philippine territory from where they will be routinely launched, as in the Cold War era, on missions of death and destruction to anywhere in the Asia Pacific region and even beyond. 

Despite the fact that US military bases were kicked out of the country barely 23 years ago, the US will likely succeed in reestablishing its presence in the Philippines under the continued pretext of defending democracy and preserving global peace and security, this time acting as global policeman in light of heightened territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines and other claimants.

The US and Philippine governments are currently “negotiating” an agreement for increased US presence on Philippine territory and access to Philippine facilities to augment the earlier Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA).  This agreement will clearly facilitate the US “pivot” of more than half of its military, especially naval, forces to the Asia Pacific region. 

Significantly, part of the pivot plan is the Philippine basing of US drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including those loaded with lethal weapons, for use in drone warfare.

Most Filipinos, even the well-informed, know little about this relatively new kind of warfare involving high tech weaponry utilized by the US (and to a lesser degree, by the United Kingdom and Israel)  for combat and non-combat intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and, increasingly, for assassination missions.  The latter are euphemistically termed “targeted killings”; individual personalities may be in the drone’s crosshairs but there is the more shotgun type called “signature killings” wherein groups of people are fired upon in the expectation that the targeted “enemy” will be one of those eliminated.

Western corporate media, in tune with the official line of the governments that are conducting drone warfare, has glamourized drones as the epitome of high technology as applied to warfare -- highly effective, highly precise, and considerably risk-free for military personnel using them.

But with every “successful” strike that downs a supposed high-value quarry, usually someone described as a “militant” or “terrorist” linked with the deadly Al Qaeda, there is often the bothersome report, never officially confirmed, of civilian casualties including women and children.  (Note that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants” unless proven otherwise.)

Drones or UAVs are aircraft without any pilots on board.  They are “piloted” from the ground or may follow pre-programmed instructions for specific missions.  Drones may be armed or unarmed. They were used extensively by the US in the Vietnam War and Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; after the September 11 Twin Towers attack and with advances in miniaturization and computer software, drone warfare has been growing at unprecedented and alarming rates.

The US has two UAV programs: that of the military and that of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The former is publicly acknowledged and operates where US troops are stationed, e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, the CIA’s program is covert and missions under it often occur where there are officially no US troops such as in Pakistan and Somalia.

The US defends the use of drone strikes as “necessary, legal and just” in the so-called war against terrorism.

But for the first time in October last year the UN General Assembly debated precisely the legality, under international human rights and humanitarian law norms, of the use of the lethal UAV system.  Pakistan called for an end to the strikes inside its territory as a blatant violation of its sovereignty and as constituting signal fire for terrorist counter-attacks.  Venezuela called drones "flagrantly illegal" and by its reckoning, had claimed 1,800 casualties with only about 10% of whom were "targeted individuals".  Venezuela's representative condemned these strikes as “collective punishment".  China for its part called for “respect for the principles of UN charters, the sovereignty of states and the legitimate rights of the citizens of all countries” in the face of “abuse” of a grey area in international law.

According to David Swanson in “A new kind of war is being legalized”, the UN reports by Christof Heyns, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Ben Emmerson, the special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, established important points.  These are: “U.S. drones have killed hundreds of civilians; drones make war the norm rather than an exception; signature strikes are illegal; double-tap strikes (targeting rescuers of a first strike’s victims) are illegal; killing rather than capturing is illegal; imminence (as a term to define a supposed threat) can’t legally be redefined to mean eventual or just barely imaginable; and — most powerfully — threatened by drones is the fundamental right to life.”

Both UN reports underscored that the official policy of secrecy that has characterized drone warfare has led to the lack of accountability for the rising number of civilian deaths, injuries and substantial damage to property as well as the cloud of insecurity and fear in many areas in Pakistan that are continuously subjected to such attacks. With a lack of accountability, there arises a climate of impunity that makes drone warfare insulated from checks by civilian institutions and the public at large.

Families of victims of weaponized UAVs in Pakistan and Afghanistan have banded together and have sought the help of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to bring the US to account for what they describe as "war crimes".  Thus the veil of official silence over the “collateral damage” caused by these lethal UAV strikes is slowly being torn down.

A movement to Ban Weaponized Drones from the World has been started last year with a growing number of organizations signing on to an international petition amid calls for protest actions to bring the issue to the attention of activists and ordinary people worldwide.  The petition rejects attempts to distinguish and justify certain kinds of drone attacks as legitimate especially when justified in the context of a US-concocted “war on terror”. 

Amnesty International points to the US government’s flawed “global war" legal theory that “treats the entire world as a battlefield between the USA and armed groups, on which lethal force may apparently be used without regard to human rights standards” and its “invocation of the right to use force in self-defense to justify the deliberate killing of virtually anyone suspected of involvement of any kind in relation to a range of armed groups and/or terrorism against the USA”.   

The peoples of the world -- including the Filipino people -- who simply abhor state terrorism and systematic murder on a mass scale must take up the specific fight against drone warfare in line with the cause of eliminating all weapons of mass destruction and bringing about a safer, saner and more just world for future generations. #

Published in Business World
14-15 February 2014


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