Death by drone

IssueSeptember 2011
News by Chris Cole

Drones may be “the perfect weapons for a war weary nation on a tight budget” as one journalist wrote recently, but reported civilian casualties from drone strikes continue to rise. For the first time the British ministry of defence (MoD) has admitted that one of its drone strikes killed Afghan civilians in March 2011. The deaths of the unnamed Afghans was revealed by an anonymous correspondent from the UK’s permanent joint headquarters (PJHQ) at RAF Northwood in reply to one of my Freedom of Information requests.

Answers to three other questions were refused as the MoD did “not consider that it would be in the public interest to release this information at this time”.

Responding to a parliamentary question from Green MP Caroline Lucas about the deaths, David Cameron said: “I do not think that the answer is to turn our face away.” Unfortunately the British prime minister was not suggesting that we would face up to our responsibilities to these innocent
victims, but rather predictably was arguing that we cannot turn away from drone technology which, as he put it, is “taking out” the bad guys.

Meanwhile in the US, John Brennan, a former member of the CIA and currently a senior counter terrorism advisor to US president Barack Obama, has been mocked in the mainstream press for arguing in response to questions about drone strikes in Pakistan that “for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop”.

Those claims were shown to be patently untrue by many, including the excellent research work on drone strikes in Pakistan by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The BIJ working with local researchers, journalists and lawyers in Pakistan have uncovered hundreds of civilian deaths,
including more than 160 children, in drone strikes in Pakistan over the past seven years.

Despite this evidence of civilian deaths, drone strikes continued to take place around the world over the summer months. A strike in Yemen on 1 August killed 15 people; a strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan killed over 20 people on 10 August; and a drone strike in Gaza on 19 August killed three people from same family including a five-year-old boy and a doctor.