I endorse a total ban on development, storage, sale and use of weaponized and surveillance drones.
The proliferation of weaponized drones threatens people throughout the world, making it easier than ever for militaries to wage war. Drone technology makes assassination physically safer for the perpetrator, thus encouraging nation states to use assassination as a basic element of foreign policy. Not only countries but also insurgent groups and paramilitaries continually acquire and use drones, raising possibilities for retaliation, blowback and mistrust.
Clearly, assassination and killing on suspicion violate the Universal Declaration of Huan Rights.
Drone assassination and killing on suspicion, when ordered by, for example, a U.S. president, violates laws and principles ensuring due process. Whomever gives the order becomes the judge, jury and executioner, unchecked by due process. The targeted person or group never has an opportunity to appear before a court of law.
At a time in my life when I barely knew drones existed, a young Lebanese mother mourning the death of her six year-old daughter, Zainab, helped me understand how monitoring by drones terrified her and her neighbors.
It was the summer of 2006, during a war referred to as the Israeli-Hezbollah war. On July 30th, around 1:00 a.m., Israeli warplanes fired missiles at buildings in Qana, a small village in southern Lebanon. One missile, a bunker buster supplied by the U.S. corporation, Raytheon, caused a three-story building to collapse, killing an extended family of 27 people. 15 of them were children.
Two weeks later, with a team of international observers, I visited Qana because of reports of a massacre there. Driving toward the village, we saw men preparing cement structures for burials. We entered the village on foot and saw men arranging white plastic chairs for guests who came to mourn with family members in the funeral tradition. Four women sitting quietly in an outdoor patio invited Farah Mokhtarazadei and me to join them. Each time a neighboring woman arrived, the women would stand and embrace one another. They had borne their pain for 18 days, since the bombs slammed into homes in their village. The mass funeral had been delayed until families could safely gather for burials.
One mother had suffered injuries. Under her veil, she wore a medical hood, and a thick brace encircled her neck. She stiffly shifted her tall, slender body, unable to point across the street to what was once a building where frightened children huddled together for shelter during the bombing. One of those children was her six year old daughter, Zainab.
She winced as she tried to gesture upward. “Didn’t they know?” she asked. “Didn’t they see?” Later, I realized she was referring to surveillance drones, overhead, which she was sure must have filmed children running back and forth between their homes and this building. Umm Zainab said we must be able to see how close the two homes were. Yes, we could see. We listened to the drone of an unmanned surveillance plane crisscrossing the skies above. Couldn’t they see?
Umm Zainab asked one of the children to bring her a stack of newspapers. One front-page photo showed Zainab held aloft, lifeless, by a strong, helmeted relief worker who seemed to be shouting in agony. Another photo showed Zainab lying next to 2 year old Zahr’a. The force of the explosion apparently damaged the internal organs of the little girls, as they slept. Their bodies were not mutilated.
Then Umm Zainab placed in my hands a framed photo of Zainab, a curly headed little girl with huge dark eyes posing seriously for the camera. One could only imagine her smile.
“Who are the ‘terrorists’?” Umm Zayneb whispered, slowly reaching over to point at Zainab’s photo. “Is she the ‘terrorist’?”
Umm Zainab and her neighbors endured the sheer terror of being monitored, constantly, by those evidently willing and certainly able to kill their children.
I recall hearing an anguished account, in 2009, from a Pakistani man whose village, Khaisor, was struck by drones. There, village elders, following their custom, had welcomed strangers who asked for a meal. U.S. military drone surveillance was presumably tracking the strangers. The home where the meal was served may have been deemed a Taliban stronghold. At 4:00 a.m. the following morning, the U.S. bombed the home, killing 14 women and children and two elders. The attack exemplified a form of one-sided war, a video game for one side, but for the other, the horror of destroyed homes, murdered loved ones and neighbors, and mutilated survivors.
I asked our guest if he could ever imagine people in his village being willing to converse with ordinary U.S. people about possibilities for peace. He looked at me as though I were a bit off my rocker. “Who would ever be so crazy,” he asked “as to not want peace?! We would only ask you to leave your weapons outside.”
Between 2010- 2019, I visited the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul several times a year, making 30 trips in all. Four blimps constantly hovered over Kabul, equipped with surveillance cameras to constantly film people below. Unseen but likewise functioning as “eyes in the skies” were surveillance and weaponized drones. These machines acquired hundreds of miles of camera footage which was analyzed by teams of U.S. military and intelligence personnel, ostensibly to establish patterns of life in Afghanistan. I believe far more valuable information is regularly gathered by the APV who hike up steep mountainsides, along icy paths, during harsh winter months to visit widows and orphans living in hovels, lacking food and clean water. They sit with the women, accepting tea and the warmth of utterly simple hospitality, while asking basic survey questions: how many times each week does this family eat beans? What is the source for your water? What is your rent? Who earns an income for this family? Answers are recorded in notepads, and if the last question elicits a response indicating the main income earner is under 12 years of age, that family will be very seriously considered to participate in the APV projects to enable families to survive.
The APV have developed a tutoring program for “street kids” and have enabled widows to earn a living wage by manufacturing heavy blankets which are then distributed free of charge at refugee camps in Kabul.
An estimated 600,000 children hawk goods like tissues and cigarettes on the streets of Kabul to earn money for their displaced families who have fled to refugee camps.
“They’re cold and earning a meager wage, but it’s necessary for the family to survive Kathy says. “They go back to wretched housing that’s sometimes just a piece of plastic held up by four poles and perhaps some blankets issued by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees].”
The young APVs surveys actually do help establish patterns of information about daily life in Kabul, and the information truthfully pertains to life and death matters, as well as imminent needs.
By contrast, information collected by drones criss-crossing the skies and hunting for high value targets creates a distraction and potentially sets the stage for criminal assassination. What’s more, people learn very little about the consequences of these attacks.
Consider, for example, the plight of Afghan laborers, in September of 2019, who were hired to collect pine nuts. Their employer had already notified provincial authorities, by letter, that migrant laborers would encamp outside his farm.
On September 17, 2019, exhausted from their day’s work, about 150 migrant laborers set up an overnight camp. In the early hours of the following morning, a U.S. drone attacked, killing at least 32 people. More than 40 others were wounded. The U.S. military claims ISIS fighters were hiding among those who were killed.
There are no reports to help us know the names and ages of those who were killed or to learn what help was available for the wounded. How many were children? In this remote, rural area of eastern Afghanistan, the likelihood maimed and wounded survivors were taken to a facility offering X-rays, surgery, or medication is slight.
In 2009, I participated in a fast outside the gate of Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada, calling for an end to production, maintenance of and use of weaponized drones. Inside the base, pilots were being trained to operate drones. These drones fire missiles and drop bombs that incinerate and maim people in the targeted area, many of them civilians whose only “crime” is to be living with their family.
Villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan have little voice in the court of U.S. public opinion and no voice whatsoever in U.S. courts of law. Aiming to raise concern over U.S. usage of drones for targeted killings, those of us who fasted outside the base for one week and then entered the base to deliver a letter to the commander. We were arrested and charged with trespass under Nevada state law. Interestingly, the judge who tried our case allowed us to call expert witnesses. He heard testimony from former Atty. General Ramsey Clark, Ret. Army Colonel Ann Wright, and Professor of law William Quigley, and concluded the trial by saying he would need four months to think about all that he had heard. Eventually, the 14 defendants were found guilty and sentenced to time served, but all agreed it was worthwhile to know the judge at least believed he was responsible to study the issues. We remain convinced of our own citizen obligations under international law and our protected rights under the U.S. constitution to abolish drone warfare.
At Hancock AFB near Syracuse, I was among 37 people who were arrested for protesting use of drones on Good Friday, April 22, 2011. We had held a die-in at the main entrance roads to the base which was flying MQ-9 Reaper drones over Afghanistan. I was jailed for two days and eventually fined $375. I don’t believe I acted criminally and I told the judge I couldn’t in conscience, pay a fine. In fact, as a war tax refuser, I have refused all payment of federal income taxes to the U.S. government since 1980.
On April 18, 2014, I joined activists at a Good Friday prayer service outside of Beale AFB in California. We were protesting against remote control killing and taking a stand for justice, compassion and peace. Our arrests brought the total number of people arrested in March and April of that year, at Beale, to 32. Charges against all of us were subsequently dropped.
In June of 2014, Georgia Walker and I were among busloads of people who protested outside of Whiteman Airforce Base which operates weaponized drones. Georgia and I approached soldiers at the base carrying a loaf of bread and a letter asking the commander three vital questions: How many people, if any, had been killed that day by drones operated inside Whiteman AFB? How were pilots being trained to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants? And, should a pilot wish to be relieved of duties to operate drones, for conscientious reasons, what protocols were in place to enable a different assignment? A federal judge in Missouri found Georgia and I guilty of trespass. I was sentenced to three months in prison which I served at the Lexington, KY federal correctional institution.
The efforts of people who negotiated treaties banning land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons should now guide international momentum to ban weaponized drones through means of a treaty prohibiting the development, sale, storage or use of these pernicious weapons.
Military contractors often mislead people by claiming weaponized drones enable operators to precisely identify and target enemies, eliminating the high value target without causing collateral damage. In truth, the drone cameras can never give a clear image of realities taking place on the ground. The vaunted “eyes in the skies” and kill-at-a-distance weapons cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. What’s more, reliance on drone surveillance actually prevents people from understanding real needs and concerns of people living under drone surveillance.
Because drone warfare is inherently killing by remote control, with warriors often distanced by thousands of miles from the intended targets, we seldom learn about the harrowing, traumatic consequences borne by people attacked or monitored by drones.
When media accounts do report civilian casualties caused by weaponized drones, they rarely provide information about the victims or their communities.
As in the case of the nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries, we can expect the commercial and military drone industries to spur each other on, an amoral profit motive driving both.
Banning weaponized and surveillance drones would enhance our capacity to work toward meeting human needs. Countries could free up scientists and innovators to collectively tackle the greatest terrors we face, such as the terrors related to climate catastrophes, the likelihood of ongoing pandemics, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the suffering caused by vast income inequities.
Kathy Kelly is a peace activist and author whose efforts to end military and economic wars have sometimes led her to live in war zones and U.S. federal prisons.