drones

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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."

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.

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.”

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.”

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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