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DRONE WATCH: Drone Weekend

U.S. drones are having a busy weekend, killing people in both Pakistan and Yemen.

On Saturday, an attack in Pakistan is reported to have killed six people. Pakistan’s The Nation reports that “A U.S. drone strike targeting a compound on Saturday killed at least six suspected militants in North Waziristan’s Datta Khel tehsil bordering Afghanistan.” DAWN newspaper added that six drones flying low in Dattakhel fired four rockets on a vehicle and a house.”

On Sunday, AP reported a strike in Yemen killed five people, including a top al-Qaida militant wanted for allegedly masterminding a 2002 attack on a French oil tanker.

In a separate attack, 14 civilians were killed when a disputed strike hit two cars. In the same story, AP reported:

“Yemeni fighter planes mistakenly hit vehicles carrying civilians traveling south of the capital, killing 14. Military officials said the airstrikes in Radda in the province of Bayda were based on faulty intelligence that the passengers were al-Qaida members. Missiles fired from the warplanes hit two vehicles carrying local residents returning to their villages. Tribesman Sheik Ahmed Ali said the dead included three women and three children.”

The Yemen Post, however, cites “local sources” saying the attack was by a U.S, drone. Al Jazeera, citing officials and local tribal leaders, also reported the attack as a drone strike. Bloomberg, citing an “independent Yemeni news website,” reported that “it wasn’t clear whether the strike was launched from a U.S. drone or a Yemeni warplane.”

Either way, 14 civilians are dead due to faulty intelligence. Ultimately, that is more important than the source of the missiles that killed them.

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DRONE WATCH: Yemen Attack Kills Eight.

Last week was drone week in Pakistan, this week it’s Yemen. Two deaths were reported in an attack on a car on Tuesday, at least four in another car on Wednesday, and another attack today that killed eight. Reuters reports:

“Eight Islamist militants were killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday in a remote part of Hadramout, a Yemeni official said, the third such strike in the eastern Yemeni province this week.

Yemen's defense ministry said on its website that eight al Qaeda members were killed in an air strike on their vehicle in the isolated, desert district of Hawra. The local official, who declined to be named, said it was a drone strike.

The men were heavily armed, carrying machine-guns and explosives, the ministry said. The local official said the men were thought to have been on the way to carry out an attack.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Attack Kills Two in Yemen

Reuters reports that a drone attack in central Yemen yesterday killed two suspected militants:

"Two men thought to be Islamist militants were killed in an apparent U.S. drone attack on a car in central Yemen on Tuesday, the defense ministry said.

A security source and witnesses told Reuters the car was hit on a remote road from Hadramout to Maareb province - a mostly desert southeastern region where militants have taken refuge after being driven from their southern strongholds last month.

It was not clear if there were other casualties in the attack. Washington, which fears the spread of militants in Yemen, has stepped up attacks by unmanned drones this year."

The Yemen Post reported a local website as quoting a security source saying that one of those killed was a Saudi militant, and that a second car managed to get away.

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DRONE WATCH: Pakistan Protests Drone Strikes

The Pakistan Foreign Office has formally protested this week’s drone strikes. DAWN, a leading Pakistani newspaper, reported today,

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Foreign Office on Thursday summoned a senior American diplomat to protest against US drone strikes in the country’s troubled tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. According to a statement issued by the Foreign Office spokesman, the US Embassy in Pakistan was “démarched on recent drone strikes in North Waziristan.”

Pakistani officials told the diplomat, who was not identified, that the attacks were unacceptable, unlawful and a violation of the country’s sovereignty. “A senior US diplomat was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” said an official statement. “It was emphatically stated that such attacks were unacceptable.”

How much longer will the U.S. government be able to flout international law?

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2,000 U.S. Deaths in Afghanistan

After nearly 11 years of war, the New York Times reports that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan went over 2,000 this week.  In an analysis of those deaths, the Times reports that “… three out of four were white, 9 out of 10 were enlisted service members, and one out of two died in either Kandahar Province or Helmand Province in Taliban-dominated southern Afghanistan. Their average age was 26.”

Accompanying the piece is an interactive photomontage of these men and women, with their age and hometown. Clicking through the photos is a sobering experience, and makes one wonder how many more will die? As one mother, whose son had just turned 21 when he died, told the Times, “Our forces shouldn’t be there,” she said. “It should be over. It’s done. No more.”

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DRONE WATCH: Investigate Drone Attacks

As international concern about U.S. targeted killings with drones rises, Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, said Sunday that every drone strike should be impartially investigated. According to Common Dreams,

"Emmerson is preparing a report for the next session of the Human Rights Council in March covering the use of drone attacks, which have spiked since Obama's presidency.

He questioned the legality of the drone strikes and noted the growing global outrage over their use. ‘We can't make a decision on whether it is lawful or unlawful if we do not have the data. The recommendation I have made is that users of targeted killing technology should be required to subject themselves, in the case of each and every death, to impartial investigation. If they do not establish a mechanism to do so, it will be my recommendation that the UN should put the mechanisms in place through the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner.’”

This comes as a flurry of drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the last four days have killed at least 18 people.  Reuters reports that six people were killed in an attack on Saturday, five early on Sunday, and two more later on Sunday near the location of the previous strike. These attacks came as celebrations of the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of Ramadan, were occurring. Tuesday, a further strike killed five, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Emmerson’s call for investigations is an important step, one that will hopefully mark the beginning of the end for drones as killing machines.

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DRONE WATCH: The Drone Revolution’s Next Phase

As drones continue to proliferate, the technology is behind them is speeding ahead. Wired takes a look at the next generation of drones now in development.

"Today's unmanned robotic planes only seemadvanced. A decade after the CIA and the Air Force tucked a Hellfire missile under the wing of a Predator drone, much hasn't actually changed: pilots in air-conditioned boxes remotely control much of the armed drone fleet; the robo-planes are easy for an enemy to spot; the weapons they fire weigh about the same; as much as they love the skies, they take refuge on dry land; and they're built around traditional airframes like planes and helicopters. Yawn.

Drones are moving out to sea -- above it and below it. They're growing increasingly autonomous, no longer reliant on a pilot with a joystick staring at video feeds from their cameras. They're getting stealthier; the payloads they carry are changing; and they're going global. They're pushing humans out of the gondolas of blimps. And the laboratories of the drones of the future aren't only owned by American defense contractors, they're in Israel and China and elsewhere, too. … Here's a look at the more ambitious ways drones are getting re-imagined."

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DRONE WATCH: When are Drone Killings Illegal?

Efforts to bring the rule of law to killing are not always easy or clear-cut.  Although as an advocate of non-violence, I can condemn all killing; whether killing in a conflict is “legal” or not depends on the circumstances in which it occurs. International law does not prohibit all taking of life.

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor and research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is a specialist on the international law of armed conflict. In a column on CNN, she explains that under international law, killing enemy fighters during an armed conflict – a war – is legal. Outside of war, it generally is not, the human right of life prevails. Although this “dual standard for justifiable killing makes the law protecting the right to life more complicated,” it is how international law assesses violent conflicts.

O’Connell analyzes drone attacks in light of this distinction, posing the central question: Is this killing occurring in war?  She summarizes the history of the Bush and Obama administration’s efforts to defend it as part of a “war on terror,” and the efforts of a committee of the International Law Association to legally define “war.” Her conclusion:

“Targeted killing with drones in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have generally violated the right to life because the United States is rarely part of any armed conflict in those places. The human right to life that applies is the right that applies in peace.

Today, the United States is engaged in armed conflict only in Afghanistan. To lawfully resort to military force elsewhere requires that the country where the United States is attacking has first attacked the United States (such as Afghanistan in 2001), the U.N. Security Council has authorized the resort to force (Libya in 2011) or a government in effective control credibly requests assistance in a civil war (Afghanistan since 2002).”

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DRONE WATCH: Drones that Capture?

One of the primary criticisms of using drones to kill high-level al Qaeda or Taliban leaders is that they are extra-judicial executions, and that a policy of capturing these militants and putting them on trial would be preferable. In addition, if they were captured, useful intelligence could be gathered. The rejoinder, of course, is how is it possible to capture people living in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan or Yemen?
 

It appears that the technology to answer that question may soon be available. Greg McNeal speculates in Forbes, with a scenario adapted from the Lawfare blog. Someday soon, a drone could launch a non-lethal weapon – something that stuns a person, perhaps a taser – lower a robot to the ground to retrieve the person, then return to the aircraft that returns to its base with the captured prisoner. 

McNeal concludes, Regardless of how you do it, it seems like technology is not the biggest hurdle in developing and perfecting drones that can capture rather than kill.”

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DRONE WATCH: Drones Over North Dakota

While most of our attention is focused on the use of armed drones attacking suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, unarmed surveillance drones are taking to the skies across America, as the Toronto Star recently reported. The first known case of a drone assisting in an arrest occurred last year in North Dakota.

“Amid hundreds of hectares of corn and soybeans, far from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests last year of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family. The drone was called in after a dispute over a neighbour’s six lost cows escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police. It is one of the first reported cases where an unmanned drone assisted in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property. It was also a controversial sign of how drones — in all shapes and sizes — are beginning to hover over American skies.”

And, far from being an aberration, drones at home are proliferating.

“But the federal government has been quietly expanding their use. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. … While drone use in the rest of the United States has been largely theoretical, in eastern North Dakota it is becoming a way of life.”

Minnesota Public Radio also takes a look at the North Dakota scene, reporting on a drone research project at the University of North Dakota that is about to launch a program that would give sheriffs in 16 North Dakota counties access to two, and perhaps four, drones.

“With law enforcement budgets shrinking, technology is playing a greater role in policing. And for agencies that want air coverage, a camera-equipped drone, at a cost of around $50,000, can be a cheaper alternative to owning and operating a piloted airplane or helicopter. Minnesota law enforcement officials have expressed some interest, but without question, North Dakota is where the action is.”

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DRONE WATCH: Secret Drone War in Africa

David Axe, in Wired, examines America’s secret drone war in Africa.

“More secret bases. More and better unmanned warplanes. More frequent and deadly robotic attacks. Some five years after a U.S. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew the type’s first mission over lawless Somalia, the shadowy American-led drone campaign in the Horn of Africa is targeting Islamic militants more ruthlessly than ever. … It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.”

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DRONE WATCH: Bats From Hell

While Predator and Reaper drones are currently in use, the next generation is already underway. The Northrop Grumman corporation and the U.S. Navy are testing what is known as the X-47B, a drone capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers. From Business Insider, here’s an animated promotional video from Grumman showing what its new drone can do.  As a pair of the aircraft take off, swoop over deserts and mountains, firing missiles at targets on the ground; they look like bats from hell.

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DRONE WATCH: Victims of Drones

 

In the news today are two stories of drone victims seeking justice for relatives who have been killed or injured.

The Guardian reports on legal action being taken in the U.K. by an Afghan man who lost five relatives in a missile strike. A letter sent to the Ministry of Defense is demanding details of Britain's role in supplying information to the American military "kill list," including “the compilation, review and execution of the list and what form it takes." Habib Rahman, a bank worker in Kabul, lost two brothers, two uncles and his father-in-law in an alleged case of mistaken identity resulting in a U.S. missile attack on their cars on 2 September 2010.

And in Pakistan’s Dawn, Waris Husain, a Washington, D.C., based attorney and writer for the newspaper, examines the U.S.  failure to compensate Pakistanis who suffer property loss or physical injury due to drone missions. While some survivors of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have received payments, none have gone to victims of drone attacks in Pakistan, and no U.S. court has accepted a claim by Pakistani civilians. Mr. Husain concludes: “While the US wishes to stabilise its relationship with Pakistan, the CIA shows no signs of minimising it use of drone strikes in Pakistan’s border region, which means a system of compensation for victims is absolutely necessary.”

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DRONE WATCH: Are Drones “Humane”?

German author and journalist, Dirk Kurbjuweit, in an essay in DER SPIEGEL,reports that the German military is considering whether it should buy armed drones. Given that Germany is relatively scrupulous in matters of war,” he writes, “the unmanned aircraft seems to be the ideal weapon for the country.” But he then notes the questions that raises in regard to pride, humanity and the law, and argues that so-called “humane” drones are, in fact, the most brutal of weapons.

The fundamental question is an ongoing discussion over “whether humane weapons are even feasible. In other words, is it possible to create weapons that somehow protect perpetrators or lessen the damage to victims? In this context, the word humane is not an absolute but a relative concept, referring to a weapon that is less horrific than other weapons.”

One of the arguments for humaneness is the precision of the missiles, that they do not destroy as much of the area surrounding their target and thus produce fewer civilian casualties than bombing attacks from aircraft. They also pose no risk to the force using them, further reducing the casualties of war. On the other hand, their relative humaneness makes their use more likely; and the targeted executions of alleged terrorists are dubious under international law.

Kurbjuweit concludes:

“A humane approach to war is a complex issue. Drones seem relatively humane, but that perception only increases the temptation to use them. They spare one's own troops, which is good, but they pose a great threat to civilians, which is terrible. As a result, the humane approach gives rise to a special form of inhumanity. …

But no one should allow themselves to be seduced by the idea that this weapon is humane or good. A drone armed with missiles exposes the essential nature of war in an especially clear way. Because a drone hunts down an individual, the slaughter loses its anonymity. The victim acquires a name and a face, and it becomes abundantly clear what war is all about: the destruction of human beings.”

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DRONE WATCH: Brennan Defends Drones in Yemen

In a speech yesterday in Washington, administration counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan defended the campaign of drone strikes in Yemen. As reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“In his most explicit comments on Washington's largely hidden military and intelligence operations in Yemen, John Brennan said no evidence indicates that the drone strikes are helping recruit members for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemen-based group that is Al Qaeda's most active branch. ...

"Brennan said that the drone pilots, who operate the aircraft from remote ground stations, make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. 'And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP.... In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.' "

Addressing a common concern, Brennan said that the only targets for drones are militants whose goal is to attack the US or its allies, not those fighting against the Yemeni government. He added that U.S. officials do provide intelligence information to Yemeni armed forces fighting against militants.

The report noted that the drone attacks are part of a larger strategy.

“U.S. special operations forces have been advising Yemeni military units, and Washington is providing $337 million in aid to Yemen this year, the largest American aid package ever disbursed to the impoverished nation.”

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