Dr Leon Moosavi is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool
“This month, University of Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology held an event to discuss the controversial use of drones by the US government. On the same day, the US Attorney General surprised many by declaring that it would be legal for President Obama to target US citizens living in the USA with drones.
These new technological machines of war seem to have become a permanent feature of the world we live in. Here in Liverpool, we have already seen Merseyside Police using drones for surveillance purposes but our discussion centred on the use of combat drones in overseas territories.
Shrouded in secrecy
There are many aspects of drones that are problematic. To begin with, drone operations are often shrouded in secrecy. Since they are often used in covert missions, drone bases, targets and operations are often not announced. For example, only recently did it emerge that the US have been operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia.
The secrecy that surrounds the use of drones means that accountability is difficult to achieve. Moreover, the lack of recorded fatalities makes it difficult to assess the consequences of drones. Estimations suggest that up to 5,000 people may have been killed by US drones, mostly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the last 10 years. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 10% of the people killed by drones have been non-combatant civilians and the actual figure could be a lot higher. It is also known that more than 100 children have been killed by USA drones.
These civilian casualties are often controversially justified as necessary ‘collateral damage’. The number of people wounded from drone attacks is even harder to estimate. Similarly, the damage to infrastructure is scarcely mentioned. Yet, both of these have tangible repercussions on people who often already live in poverty and therefore have little access to health care and next to no ability to rebuild their houses and other buildings/roads.
One could also consider the psychological trauma suffered by civilian populations due to the use of drones. Research shows that in some places in Pakistan, where drones frequently circle at low altitudes, people suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and high levels of anxiety due to a constant awareness of a potential deadly attack.
Some have urged us to think about the use of drones in the context of human rights, international law, habeas corpus, due process, state sovereignty, and the Geneva Convention. An investigation into how these universally accepted principles may be undermined by the use of drones would be a useful undertaking as there appears to be prima facie evidence that drones do undermine these principles.
This may not be immediately apparent since there is a tendency to dehumanise those killed under the logic of the War on Terror as simply ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist sympathisers’, which also needs to be challenged if drones are to be understood in this context. The use of drones to launch rockets to kill seems to be rarely used by governments other than the USA, Britain and Israel.
International consensus may be that drones should not be used as weapons but that does not mean that the surveillance aspect should be overlooked as, arguably, even when only used to monitor terrain and people, they are overly intrusive.
It was also recently discovered that at least 16 British citizens have had their citizenship revoked as part of the War on Terror, some of whom were killed shortly afterwards by a drone attack overseas. Some critics claim the British government do this to absolve themselves of any responsibility in investigating the disappearance of their citizens. The concern over the use of drones is therefore part of a broader concern that exists about the possible erosion of civil liberties in the context of the War on Terror, which has seen the use of torture, kidnappings, black sites, extraordinary renditions and rendering.
Drones are often justified on the basis that they supposedly reduce the terrorist threat. However, it is plausible that the use of drones is counter-productive in that they may act as a recruiting sergeant for extremists who can draw upon them as an example of Western aggression.
Preventing political violence by enforcing an even more aggressive political violence appears to be a short term fix that will not resolve political grievances in the long term, but may actually generate more grievances, more enemies and more violence.
In a time of austerity and economic recession, the use of expensive drone equipment and weaponry should also be considered in financial terms. Debates need to be had as to whether public money can be better spent on education, housing, health, and other public interests, rather than on military hardware.
Drones suggest a new era in warfare that relies on technology in unprecedented ways. Comparisons have been made to video games and the lack of risk to soldiers. This raises questions about whether violence can become even more unscrupulous when done at a distance. There are already initiatives to develop robot solders of some description and the technology appears to be developing much faster than the ethical framework surrounding their use.”
For regular updates about drone activity, you can follow an insightful Twitter feed, by clicking here.
The Stop the War Coalition has organised an anti-drone demonstration on 27th April 2013.
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