New Zealand’s role in the US drone program…

Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s role in the US drone programm

So, thanks to our membership of the Five Eyes network, the GCSB spy agency has been supplying information on “persons of interest” in Afghanistan (at least) that may be used for targeting them in US drone strikes. At his post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, Prime Minister John Key said that he did not know how, or for what purposes, the information that New Zealand supplies to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is being used. He did however confirm that GCSB-supplied information had not been used to target the New Zealand citizen Daryl Jones, killed by a drone strike in Yemen last November. (How Key could be so sure when he claimed not to know the purposes for which ISAF uses the data that we supply, was left unclear.) Key would not confirm whether any other New Zealanders had been killed by drone operations.


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Key insisted that New Zealand’s contribution to the US drone programme is legal, and that moreover, our efforts “would be in the pursuit of trying to hold to account very bad people.” Both assertions completely beg the questions. The legality of drone strikes is still very much in dispute under international law, given that drones are being used to kill people in countries with whom the US and New Zealand are not in a declared state of war – and where the rules of engagement, the criteria for targeting and the proportionality of killing the individuals in question relative to the threat that they pose, are all unknowns.

More to the point, not only “very bad people” are being killed. The most disturbing aspect of yesterday’s admissions by Key is that New Zealand is now publicly complicit in the killing of innocent people – some of them children – who have been either (a) the victims of mistaken or careless targeting by US drone operators, or (b) have had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of the real targets when the button was pushed. New Zealanders now know they have been complicit in an assassination-by-drone programme that is known to have killed scores of innocent people, time and again, in countries with which we are not at war. We do not know the criteria for targeting or the degree of care that the US operators are using to identify their targets and to avoid “collateral” killings. Anecdotal evidence that successful drone strikes are called “bug splat” by US drone operators – apparently because the aftermath looks to them like a bug on a windshield – will not inspire New Zealanders to share Key’s confidence that only “very bad people” are being carefully selected for elimination by these devices. This kind of incident, where 15 Yemeni civilians were killed on their way to a wedding has occurred with regularity. Glenn Greenwald has pointed out the likely impact of such incidents.

It’s not hard to imagine what ordinary Yemenis think of the U.S., and whether they’d be more sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s message after all of this. Here we have — yet again — the U.S. doing more than anyone else could to increase the threat of Terrorism with the very policies it claims are necessary to combat Terrorism.

There is widespread concern about the dubious legality of drone strikes. Last October, the Guardian reported on two separate UN investigations into the drone programme. One, by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, examined a range of drone strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and Somalia. The other report was carried out by Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, who warned that the technology was being misused as a form of “global policing.” True, in the course of his investigation, Heyns is reported by the Guardian as being informed that in Afghanistan, “targeting intelligence is ‘thoroughly scrubbed’ to ensure accuracy before authorisation to proceed is given.”

However, and on that same point, Emmerson found that the involvement in the drone programme of the CIA – and presumably of sister intelligence agencies, such as the GCSB – has created an “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency” with respect to the drone programme. “One consequence is that the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere.”

Emmerson does acknowledge that if drones are used “in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.” However, he adds, “no clear international consensus” exists on the laws controlling the deployment of drone strikes; and in the view of the Special Rapporteur, the US needs to be far more transparent about the criteria it is using in targeting, and the extent of civilian casualties.

So, to repeat…as New Zealanders, we are accomplices in a programme of dubious legality, in which – as a matter of routine – scores of innocent civilians and their children are being killed. Thanks to the cloak of secrecy draped over the drone programme, we are totally in the dark about the rules of engagement for drones, the criteria for targeting the individuals concerned, the proportionality of execution to the threat posed by the individuals being targeted, the accuracy of the drone operations, and the extent of civilian casualties that drones have inflicted within countries with whom we are not at war. Welcome to 21st century push-button war making.

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