On the one hand, the global system of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, can be seen as a web of contradictions.
The political leaders, military commanders and directors of intelligence agencies controlling the technology and developing the ideological framework that underpins their use, extoll drones as the most precise, effective and ethical means of combating terrorist insurgency, yet it has been shown that their use has resulted in a catastrophic number of civilian deaths.
The same people claim that drones are only used to target a small number of terrorists in the face of imminent threats, yet at the same time explain that the usefulness of drones rests on their ability to collect information through widespread surveillance, and concede that even with this information they are often unsure of the identities of those they fire upon.
They deploy drones in the name of strengthening the rule of law, yet fly them in legal grey-zones where accountability can be avoided. In some areas they are used to secure national borders, whilst in others they bypass borders completely.
The most minute details of the west’s drone programmes are supposedly subject to intense levels of oversight and scrutiny, yet the way decisions to use drones are made is completely opaque; it is a process shrouded in layers of misinformation, public relations, cryptic jargon and secrecy.
Above all, their use is justified in the name of global security, yet in areas of the middle east they are creating conditions of constant war.
But on other hand, the world’s drone programmes can be characterised in more straightforward terms.
They can be as systems of large-scale surveillance and extra-judicial killing, extended in the name of combating terrorist insurgency, that primarily effect ordinary people in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Palestine.
To date, the US, UK and Israel have been the greatest proponents of armed drones. But at least eleven countries, including China, Turkey, Russia and Egypt, can call upon them, as can several non-state groups. Many other countries rank surveillance drones in their military arsenal, including all but three European countries, with Italy one in the process of arming theirs.
The increasing popularity of drones has created a booming industry, with the global market for military drones set to increase to an estimated $8.6 billion by 2022. It’s makeup is multifaceted, ranging from research studies, the design and construction of the drones’ physical components – their fibre-glass bodies, engines, cameras, and infrared technology – to the outsourcing of their piloting to private companies, and the privatisation of the analysis of the surveillance data collected to inform their use.
Huge government contracts for this work, funded by tax-payers money, create profit for aeronautical and defence companies. Among them are some of the largest defence contractors in the world, including General Atomics, the company responsible for Reaper and Predator drones, the world’s most widely used, as well as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Israel Aerospace Industries, BAE Systems of the UK, and China Aerospace command smaller shares of the global market, with European defence companies such as EMT Penzberg, of Germany, and the Thales Group of France also involved. A large number of these companies are publicly traded, available to investors on the open market, allowing serious financial interests in the continued expansion of drone programmes to develop amongst wealthy investors.
The impact of all this has long been clear for those suffering under drones, but thanks to the work of civil society and investigative journalists it is now becoming known in the west. As the effects of the drone programmes developed in our names come to light, the question becomes what we can do about them: how do you fight back against the abuse of something like drones?
It’s a struggle that has been going on on the ground for some time. In Pakistan, for example, through the work of the lawyer Shazad Akhbar, who in 2011 set up the Foundation for Fundamental Rights to challenge the use of drone warfare and give a voice to victims of it. But those in countries deploying and developing drones or aiding their use through infrastructure or intelligence sharing also have a responsibility to act. As Jessica Dorsey, of the Netherlands-based organisation PAX, says, “The drones are here, they’re not going to go away. The question is which side of history you want to come down on.”
“The drones are here, they’re not going to go away. The question is which side of history you want to come down on.” – Jessica Dorsey, PAX
PAX, along with Reprieve, an NGO based in the UK, and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), based in Germany, are three European groups working to end the abuses associated with drones, and armed drones in particular.Along with individual survivors of drone attacks, their relatives, communities affected by drones, local and national NGOs in the countries in which they are being deployed, teams of researchers on the ground, whistleblowers from inside the West’s drone programmes, investigative journalists and artists, they form part of a trans-national network fighting against the way drone technology is being used.
Both Reprieve and the ECCHR began their work during the first term of the Obama presidency, when the use of armed drones began to skyrocket. Over Obama’s two terms, the US carried out at least 563 strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, compared to 57 strikes under the Bush administration.
“When he was in opposition, Obama had been extremely critical of Guantanamo and indefinite detention,” explains Kate Higham, who works on Reprieve’s assassinations project, “he was looking for another way to operate.”
Reprieve, like the ECCHR, uses strategic litigation to try and hold governments to account for the way they are using drones, hoping thereby to influence the way they are used in the future. They take up cases on behalf of victims of drone strikes and their families, mainly from Yemen and the Waziristan region of Pakistan, and target those responsible for them. The process, however, often starts on the ground. This is where the network, which has been built up over a number of years, kicks in.
Following a strike, survivors or relatives of those killed get in touch with civil-society groups on the ground. The Foundation for Fundamental Rights is one example. Such groups can then help them launch legal action to claim redress in their own countries and demand that their governments take action to prevent further strikes, while at the same time getting in contact with groups abroad, like Reprieve, who have long-standing links with civil society groups in both countries, or the ECCHR. These groups can then work strategically to find the best way to approach litigating the case, taking things like existing national law and possible complicity of European governments in the strikes, through intelligence sharing or logistical support, into consideration.
It’s a process built on trust and solidarity that requires diligence, communication and creativity in order to work through the secrecy that surrounds drone programmes and the legal ambiguity behind which their architects attempt to hide. Drone technology has developed at a far greater pace than international law has been able to adapt to regulate its use, and as Andreas Schueller of the ECCHR explains, the way in which drones are being used asks a lot of questions of existing law. This necessitates searching for ways by which the law can be used to enforce responsibility, rather than evade it.
“The first question, a crucial one, is whether a strike in Pakistan happens in the context of an armed conflict or whether it is a counter-terrorism or police operation. That was already a question back in 2010 and I think that it’s still a question today. And even if you’re in an armed conflict, who can be killed, who can be a legitimate military target? Is every member or alleged member of a terrorist group a target who you can just kill as you are in war? Or even if you are in war, how do you prove that the person is fighting for your opponent?”
The legal work of the ECCHR and Reprieve is firstly a means by which to give victims of drone warfare the opportunity to hold those responsible for their suffering to account. It is doing just that for Faisal bin ali Jaber, whose brother-in-law and nephew were killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in 2012. But tied to that is the aim of influencing the answers being given to these questions. What constitutes an imminent threat or a proportional response can be interpreted broadly or narrowly, and the way courts lean set legal precedents that can have a real impact for people on the ground.
But as the trail of responsibility for drone strikes leads back to political leaders, the difficulties in pursuing justice for those affected by them is often compounded by diplomatic and political considerations. Success in court, or even getting there, is never guaranteed, but according to Schueller, it is nonetheless crucial to push the matter by legal means to try and influence decision makers at the political level.
“One of the objectives is to change law,” Schueller says, “or to bring more legal standards into the discussion around counter-terrorism operations and the use of armed drones. For that you need to convince others with legal arguments.”
But although changing the law to regulate the use of armed drones might be a goal, it’s not all that is at stake.
“These cases are extremely difficult, and whether we have success in court or not is very often unpredictable or unlikely. So victims know we might lose the case in court but also that there’s much more around the cases. They provide opportunities for public advocacy and the chance to change something at that level.”
In isolation, national, regional and international law can only do so much to limit human rights abuses, including those that follow from the use of armed drones. Drone programmes are political programmes, carried out in the name of US, UK, Israeli citizens, among others. Raising awareness amongst the people of what is actually being done by governments in their name is a further part of the work that needs to be done to combat them.
This kind of public advocacy is also another element of Reprieve’s work.
“We investigate, that’s one of our primary methods,” Higham explains, “trying to understand narratives and develop evidence of human rights abuses when they happen. Then we also work on education and do a lot of media work.”
To a certain extent this work has been successful in fostering a more critical attitude to drones amongst the wider public, which, as Higham outlines in relation to the US programme, has had some results.
“In the early years of the drone programme it was completely non-transparent, covert and clandestine. There was very little information other than what investigative journalists or lawyers or NGOs were able to find out about what was really happening. We’ve come a long way from no one even acknowledging that the programme was taking place to Obama acknowledging that there have been a certain number of civilian deaths as a result.”
Those admissions, made by Obama in a 2013 speech announcing new guidelines for the use of drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities, can be seen as a step forward, but they also reinforce the need for public dialogue about the issue.
Obama conceded that there had been civilian casualties as a result of the US drone programme, but the number of deaths he was willing to take responsibility for fell far short of those documented by independent organisations and investigative journalists. Where admissions of the use of armed drones have been made by governments, with another example being those made by the then British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015, they have invariably been shaped to hide how these programmes truly work.
In his statement Obama claimed that drone strikes were only taken when there was “near-certainty” that no civilians would be killed or injured. He repeatedly described drones as “precision” weapons and declared drone strikes to be completely “legal”, “proportional” and “just” in a situation of war. These claims were based on the broadest interpretations of international law possible and stand in clear contradiction to the facts as they have been revealed. Nevertheless, the speech continues to reflect the dominant dialogue surrounding drones in the west. It is this dialogue that has been largely responsible for shaping public opinion to drone use. As Higham highlights, continued time and effort have to be put into reinforcing the reality of drone warfare, so as to prevent it from being overwhelmed by myth.
“The technology gives the illusion of being able to fight these very precise, very specific, very targeted battles, when we know from investigations that isn’t actually the case.
A policy like the drone programme is a terribly blunt instrument. You’re starting to see where it is used in countries like Yemen that it is not only causing huge loss of life but is also proving extremely ineffective.”
“The technology gives the illusion of being able to fight these very precise, very specific, very targeted battles, when we know from investigations that isn’t actually the case. – Kate Higham (Reprieve)
As Dorsey and the work of PAX, underline, it is crucial to emphasise the ineffectiveness of drones in countering terrorist threats, which pose real and immediate danger all over the world.
“The fact is that we do face threats in Europe and beyond, and we have to find a way to counter them. But what is a long-term strategic way to do so?”
Besides working at PAX, Dorsey formerly lead the European Forum on Armed Drones, a coalition of 25 organisations and around 80 individuals working to halt the abusive use of drones. PAX is one organisation within the forum trying to engage governments in meaningful dialogue about the issue. She highlights five key things they are trying to bring governments around to: the articulation of clear policies for the use of drones; prevention of complicity with regimes abusing them; public transparency around their own actions; mechanism to provide redress for those affected by drones; and regulation of the development and exportation of the technology. If honestly implemented, the five elements might go someway to curbing the abuses of drones. And, if connected with other forms of activism and organisation, it may be able to curb the forgetfulness of the key questions surrounding drone use, namely how we respond to the threat of terrorism, and how we value the lives of those on the other side of currently existing borders.
In trying to bring these questions into the conversation around drones, Reprieve and the ECCHR provide those affected by the strikes with a platform to speak to those responsible for carrying them out, as well as those that voted them into power. And example is seen in the testimony of Saleh Mohsen al-Ameri, whose daughter and grandson were killed along with 23 other civilians in the drone strike carried out by the US in Yemen in January 2017, the first under the Trump administration.
Such testimony can help dispel the myth of drones as sleek, supremely effective means of waging war, and of their victims as a homogeneous, and thus dehumanised, group of terrorist insurgents. This is something Dorsey outlines.
“There’s a public disconnect with this war because it’s something else, something we don’t see. We don’t have the empathetic connection with the victims. There’s a distance. That’s what we’re up against from a civil society point of view. We have to challenge those perceptions and we’re trying to do it at every level we can.”
The fight against drones has to be carried out on an immediate and, as Schueller also adds, multi-dimensional level.
“People should always demand that legal demands are broadened and respected by all states, that would be a beginning. But even then, drones could still be used under certain circumstances. The overall objective is to challenge responses to terrorism, and that’s a political response or decision – how to react to terrorist attacks, how to deal with terrorist groups growing and recruiting more people. It’s not something that can be done by military means and waging war in different regions of the world. It’s counter productive and can’t provide a stable solution. But that’s a political decision, not a legal decision.”
In order to bring about positive change in society we need to be able to deal with facts as they exist on the ground. Drone technology is here to stay, and should only be expected to develop in the years to come, with smaller, stealthier, more autonomous systems on the horizon. The decisions that lead to the worst abuses of the technology, to double-tap strikes, the killings of civilians and children, the injuring of thousands, the destruction of communities and rural infrastructure, the creation of conditions of constant terror and psychological instability, are political decisions. Strategic litigation is proving one effective means of combating them, as is engaging with politicians and public advocacy. The potential of the work of PAX, Reprieve and the ECCHR, however, seems to lie in no small part in their coordination, solidarity and place within a wider, multi-faceted network, which allows them to avoid seeing drone warfare in strictly legal, military, or counter-terrorism terms, but to identify drone strikes as political strikes founded on political ideologies that value certain lives more than others. Their collaboration reinforces the idea that no one tactic is supreme in the struggle for social change, demonstrating instead that many are legitimate. They might give us some hope that the way drones are being used today might not have to be the way they are used tomorrow, and that overwhelming facts on the ground that stand in the way of radical social change can be overcome.