The increasing using of drones – armed unmanned aerial vehicles - in modern hi-tech warfare was challenged at seminar in London on 12 July organised by Pax Christi.
Around 30 participants - representing Christian CND, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales International Department, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, the Movement for the Abolition of War and others – heard speaker Chris Cole, the Catholic Director of Drone Wars UK and author of Drone Wars Briefing, suggest they encourage a 'Playstation mentality' where killing is simply watching the movement of figures or vehicles on the ground on a screen, pushing a button and seeing them engulfed in an explosion plume.
The UK has five armed ‘Reaper’ drones in service at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, but they are controlled at height by US pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
“There have been 280 drone strikes in Afganistan since 2008, including targeted assassinations” said Chris Cole, and he condemned the “drone war era” for “making military intervention more likely”. There is a huge margin of error, and civilian casualties are mounting in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, although exact figures are impossible to ascertain.
Mary Dobbing, a researcher on Israel and unmanned warfare, reported that Israel is striking Gaza with drones most weeks, although they won’t admit it. She would like an embargo on all arms trading with Israel, which is a major exporter of arms.
representative of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign expressed concern that people in the occupied territories are reduced simply to “blobs on a screen” with drone warfare.
Jack Serle, of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, spoke of the 'secret wars' of the US in Yemen and Somalia where armed drones have been used regularly over the last five years for targeted killings. But the US government routinely refuses to provide any official information on local reports of civilian deaths or the identities of most of those killed. Civilian deaths in drone strikes are regularly reported but more chilling is the practice of firing a second set of drone strikes at the scene once people have come to find out what happened or to give aid.
Tara Murray of Reprieve suggested that US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 are not so much about the ‘war on terror’ but the ‘war of terror’. There has been a big increase in their use under the Obama administration. She reported meeting with nearly 100 Pakistani families, mostly from the tribal areas, who have been affected by drone strikes. They live on constant fear, with children unable to attend school. Travelling and trade has been reduced and the economy depressed. Her organisation criticises the US for allowing the CIA the carry out drone attacks. “It is a covert civilian agency which lacks transparency and hence eludes investigation by human rights bodies” she said. Those who control drones “are prosecutor and jury all at the flick of a button” and “people can’t surrender to a drone”. She suggested, “there is also no measure for the terror and psychological damage being done to the millions of children and adults who are in the constant sights of these unmanned systems” she reported.
“Collateral damage is a horrible euphemism for dead, innocent civilians” reflected Dr Peter Lee, a Methodist Minister and Senior Air Power lecturer at Kings College, London and at the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell. Focusing on the ethical challenges to the use of drones, he expressed concern about the issue of senior operators of the drones b “desensitized” to violence, so far removed are they from the point of impact. He spoke of the “seductiveness” of aerial technology bombing and the political preference for “using military force without the body bags arriving back home”. He highlighted the incremental increase in “ethical degradation” since the Second World War, where we now tolerate enormous civilian casualties. 85% percent of Afghanistan’s casualties today are civilians.
Last week the Methodist Church challenged the use of drones in targeting suspected terrorists. In a debate at its annual Conference in Plymouth, the Church called upon the Government to urge the US to discontinue the practice. In a report on drone warfare presented to the Conference, policy experts note that in the wake of 9/11, the CIA has carried out a "persistent campaign" of targeted killings using unmanned aircraft in northern Pakistan.
The Methodists are concerned that a reliance on drones and other remotely operated weaponry will lead to an increase in armed intervention as the physical risk to troops is lowered. The Methodist Church's conclusions have drawn support from the United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
“The Pax Christi seminar on drones was eye opening” commented Bruce Kent, a Vice President of Pax Christi. He felt “these pilotless planes introduce a new impersonal form, not of warfare, but of assassination from the sky by remote control”. In his view, “they, and the dangers they bring, are yet another challenge to Christians to find non violent ways of resolving conflict in our world”.
Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi, said the seminar was “the beginning of a long process of work on drones”.