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Why The Drone Wars Threaten Us All & Ground the Drones


October 9, 2011
Conn Hallinan / Dispatches from the Edge & Noah Shachtman / Danger Room

Lost in debate over whether the Obama administration had the right to carry out the extra-legal execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemini cleric and al-Qaeda member, is who pulled the trigger? It is not a minor question, and it lies at the heart of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 additions to the ‘49 agreement: civilians cannot engage in war.

http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2011-10-05/article/38520?headline=Dispatches-From-The-Edge-Why-The-Drone-Wars-Threaten-Us-All--By-Conn-Hallinan

Why The Drone Wars Threaten Us All
Conn Hallinan / Dispatches from the Edge & The Berkeley Daily Planet

BERKELEY, California (October 4, 2011) -- Lost in debate over whether the Obama administration had the right to carry out the extra-legal execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemini cleric and al-Qaeda member, is who pulled the trigger? It is not a minor question, and it lies at the heart of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 additions to the ‘49 agreement: civilians cannot engage in war.

In the main, laws of war focus on the protection of civilians. For instance, Article 48, the "Basic Rule" of Part IV of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, states, "In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian populations and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."

What follows in the 1977 Conventions are nine articles specifying what the general rule means, ranging from prohibitions against attacking power plants and water sources and spreading "terror among civilian populations" to destroying the "natural environment." There are many civilian-related sections in other parts of the Conventions, but the 10 articles that make up Chapter I, Section I, Part IV on "Civilian Population" are the clearest guidelines about what is allowed when civilians are caught up in war.

The Conventions were mainly a response to the horrors of World War II, where civilian deaths were more than twice those on the military side. Of the approximate 80 million people who died in WW II, 55 million of them were civilians. In comparison, out of some 17 million who died in World War I, seven million were civilians.

The logic behind Article IV of the Conventions is that civilians are innocent bystanders, with no ability to defend themselves or inflict damage on an antagonist. However, if civilians take part in hostilities, they lose their protected status. If the warring parties have an obligation to protect non-combatants, civilians also have obligations, the most important of which is that they do not act as soldiers.

In short, if someone takes a pot shot at you, it is irrelevant if he or she is a civilian, by their actions they are no longer innocent bystanders. Members of a resistance movement may not wear uniforms or be part of a military organization, but if they blow up your Humvee or ambush your patrol, they are combatants.

Which is why the question of who killed Anwar al-Awlaki (and over 2,000 people in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen killed by drones) is relevant. If the cleric was killed as part of a military operation -- as with, for instance the assassination of Osama bin-Laden -- then the arguments are around issues like whether we have the right to execute enemies without a trial (the Conventions say we don't), or violate another nation's sovereignty.

But al-Awlaki was not taken out by Navy Seals, he was assassinated by a member of the Central Intelligence Agency, the organization that runs the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. CIA members are civilians. Indeed, the new director, David Petraeus, formally resigned his Army commission to make that point. Even if he had not, however, the CIA is not a military organization and is not under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Why is this important? Because if civilians in the US are killing combatants in another country, then those civilians lose their protection under the Conventions. Worse, it means all US civilians become potential targets. If a CIA employee based in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, or Djibouti in Africa kills a Pakistani, Somalian, or Afghan with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone, one can hardly complain if everyday US citizens are targeted for retaliation.

One could argue that, since al-Awlaki was an American citizen, the hit didn't really contravene the Conventions and the arguments should be over whether you can order the killing of an American citizen without due process. However, others targeted by the drone war -- like members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Group, and the Somali Shabaab -- do not fall in this category.

According to the CIA, the drone wars have killed no civilians. "There hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop," John O'Brennan, the Obama administration's counterterrorism advisor told the New York Times.

That assertion is almost beyond ridiculous. Even a supporter of the drone war like Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, says the claim is "absurd." The United Kingdom based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that out of the 2,292 people killed by drones in Pakistan, 775 of them were civilians. Pakistan journalist Noor Behram puts the total much higher, telling the The Guardian (UK), "For every 10 to 15 people killed [by drones], maybe they get one militant."

The US claim, however false, allows the drone war to continue. There is nothing in the Conventions that bars lying.

The Obama administration (and the previous Bush administration) argue that drone war is part of the "war on terror" that Congress mandated after the 9/11 attacks: hence we are at "war" with at least the Taliban and its allies, the Shabaab, and al-Qaeda. But the CIA still has no authority to exacute a war. The last two run by the organization -- the war in Laos and the Contra war against Nicaragua -- were not only unmitigated disasters, they were illegal.

Many countries have already stretched the Geneva Conventions to the breaking point with regards to civilians and the treatment of prisoners. For instance, by using the term "collateral" to describe civilian deaths, a country sidesteps the Convention's stricture against "deliberate targeting" of civilians by claiming the damage was "inadvertent." By calling insurgents "combatants" rather than "soldiers," the US has water boarded people, thus finessing both the Conventions and the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.

One could get cynical about this -- aren't civilians always the victims of war? -- but in their own uneven way, the Geneva Conventions have protected civilians. Indeed, it was the Conventions that led to what is now an almost world wide ban on landmines and may end up eliminating cluster weapons in the future. The fact that laws don't always work, or that people of ill will figure how to contravene them, is an argument for greater adherence to the rules, not ignoring or contravening them.

The danger is that the US is blurring the difference between civilian and military, and that is a dangerously slippery slope. We already have a former general running the CIA, and former CIA Director Leon Penetta heads up the Defense Department. If we reach a point where there is nothing to distinguish our military institutions from our civilian ones, then all of us are fair game.

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com



Ground the Drones: Peaceniks Target Killer Drones
Noah Shachtman / Danger Room/Wired Magazine

(April 14, 2009) -- For nearly 30 years, Father Louie Vitale -- a 76-year-old former Air Force navigator turned Franciscan monk and peace activist -- has traveled to the remote deserts of the Southwest to demonstrate against … well, just about everything involving America's military.

He's been thrown in jail for protesting the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, the wars in Iraq and the military's interrogation procedures, to name just a few of his more than 200 arrests. But these days, Vitale and his fellow activists have a new target in the mountains and deserts north of Las Vegas: America's fleet of killer drones.

"We've been out there in that very desert, stopping nuclear testing, for over 30 years now," he tells Democracy Now. "All of a sudden, we noticed down the street … all of these drones." At first, he thought they were just practice drones. "Then we find out that they're bombing and bombing and bombing in Afghanistan."

In Central Asia, the unmanned strikes on suspected militants have become one of the most controversial elements of the eight-year campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Late last week, Pakistan's prime minister demanded that America hand over control of the drones operating in his country to the Islamabad government. The News of Pakistan accused the tele-operated aircraft of "perishing 687 innocent
Pakistani civilians" in 60 separate strikes, while only "killing 14 wanted al Qaeda leaders."

But here in America, the unmanned attacks have gone on largely without protest. Even the professional activist types have largely ignored the robots and their military masters.

Last Thursday afternoon, however, Vitale and 13 other demonstrators marched into Nevada's Creech Air Force Base, where the military remotely pilots the unmanned aircraft that fly over Afghanistan and Iraq. They sat down, and began to sing and pray -- part of a 10-day vigil dubbed "Ground the Drones."

About an hour later, they were arrested by the State Police. At the activists' behest, the cops then drove them to Las Veags for booking. "When we were released on Good Friday morning, we did what any normal Christian would do," Vitale's compatriot, John Dear, writes. "We went back to the scene of the crime and continued to pray and speak out for an end to U.S. warmaking."

Dear then launches into a rather purple account about his detention, release and return to Creech -- just in time for a "Stations of the Cross" demonstration, he notes.

With 60 folks, we read and prayed through each modern-day station, learning how Jesus is condemned and crucified all over again in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan because of our weapons and wars. We prayed, sang and reflected along the towering chain fence of the military base -- and were interrupted repeatedly by the drones flying overhead.

We saw with our own eyes that these drones are real, that our country is dead set on killing, that these weapons are no joke. We tried to take action, to say as Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemani, "Stop, no more of this!" Tomorrow on
Easter Sunday morning, we will gather for mass at the Nevada test site, then walk on to that military base to offer the risen Jesus' gift of resurrection peace and get arrested all over again. So it goes.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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