Monday, November 1, 2010

Killing by remote control

Top Gun, the 1980s blockbuster that made Tom Cruise’s bank account as large as his ego, was a blatant recruiting video for the American military. Following its success, the number of young men who applied to become fighter pilots rose by 500%, according to the US Navy.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Top Gun director Tony Scott is talking about making a sequel that will address how much warfare has changed in the interim. For his research, Scott plans to hang out in Nevada, the launching pad for drone attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan. His sources will be “these geeks”, who operate unmanned aircraft “then party all night,” he told HitFix, an entertainment website.

Officials working for the European Defence Agency (EDA) lead far less glitzy lives than Hollywood film-makers. Yet they share Scott’s priapic fascination with digital-era killing machines.

With military spending being shrunk in many EU countries, the agency is strenuously advocating that governments should “compensate” for cutbacks by focusing on improving their technological capabilities. Speaking in early October, the EDA’s deputy chief executive Carlo Magrassi identified the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as pilotless drones - as a priority for his team.

Magrassi tried to make drones sound respectable by stating that they can be used for “border control, environmental purposes or disaster relief”. But if he thinks they have been developed to monitor dolphins and rescue earthquake victims, I suggest he checks out the Irish-language documentary “Ag Filleadh Ar Gaza” (“Returning to Gaza”; watch it with English subtitles on Its most harrowing scene was filmed among the rubble of the al-Dayah family’s home in Gaza City. Twenty-two members of that family – including 12 children and a pregnant woman – were murdered early one morning in January 2009 when they were attacked by an Israeli drone. Some of their corpses were burned so badly that they could not be identified; others have still not been recovered.

Last week a European Commission spokeswoman tried to avoid saying anything about the death sentence imposed on Tariq Aziz by claiming that the EU’s position on the death penalty is well-known. If the Union’s opposition to capital punishment is really so well known, why don’t we hear it denouncing the extrajudicial executions carried out with the aid of pilotless drones? The EU’s silence might have something to do with the complicity of its governments in such killings.

Britain, for example, has been using armed drones called Reapers in Afghanistan since 2007. By the summer of this year, these aircraft had discharged weapons almost 100 times.

A bigger reason for the EU’s reticence could be its subservience to the United States. During 2009, US drones killed no fewer than 700 Pakistani civilians. The slaughter which Barack Obama is authorising there appears all the more abominable when you consider that the floods which devastated Pakistan in recent months have been used as a pretext to intensify drone strikes. The 22 drone attacks carried out in September this year were the highest number during a single month to date.

Although Leon Panetta, the CIA’s director, has argued that the drone programme is “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership”, several learned scholars view America’s policies as unlawful. Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor with the Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, said recently that the US has no legal right to resort to air strikes in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan because it is not formally engaged in armed conflict in those countries. David Glazier from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles has argued that troops involved in drone attacks could be prosecuted for any deaths or injuries they cause under the domestic laws of the countries where the attacks occur.

Perhaps the most astute observations on drones are those of Philip Alston, a former United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Alston has voiced his disquiet at the “Playstation mentality” surrounding these killings. “Young military personnel raised on a diet of video games now kill real people remotely using joysticks,” he wrote earlier this year. “Far removed from the human consequences of their actions, how will this generation of fighters value the right to life? How will commanders and policymakers keep themselves immune from the deceptively antiseptic nature of drone killings?”

The arms industry is intimately involved in the EDA’s work on drones. At the moment unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may only be flown in airspace where no other vehicles are allowed. But the EDA is determined that passengers on Ryanair and Easyjet flights will see drones whizzing past them before too long. And so it has launched SIGAT (Study on the Insertion of UAS in the General Air Traffic). Its partners in this endeavour include BAE, Dassault, Sagem and EADS.

Sagem, a French company, is especially active. Next year it is scheduled to start designing new drones as part of a “joint venture” with Elbit, the Israeli company which manufactured some of the most lethal weaponry tested out in Gaza in 2008 and last year. Elbit has signalled that it hopes this initiative will help increase its sales throughout Europe.

The result of this cooperation could be that Europe’s arsenals are stocked with arms invented with the specific aim of inflicting suffering in Palestine. Just because these weapons are remote controlled doesn’t mean our governments won’t have blood on their hands.

·First published by New Europe (, 31 October-6 November 2010

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