Monday 7 October 2013

War isn't a video game: witnessing (against) drone warfare

Today a couple of us from Hodge Hill went on a day trip to Lincoln. Not a pilgrimage to its majestic cathedral, towering over the city, but to a less imposing building somewhere below it, the Magistrates Court on Lincoln High Street. We were there to support one of my close friends, and five of his companions, who were appearing in court charged with criminal damage having, back in June, made a hole in the fence of RAF Waddington and, once they were inside, sought to find the control centre for the 'Unmanned Airborne Vehicles' (UAVs), otherwise known as 'armed drones', which are currently flying daily over Afghanistan. On their way through the air base, they placed news articles, photos, and posters around the place, seeking to highlight to those who work there the deadly effects of the weapons operated from computer screens in the Lincolnshire countryside.

The sheer weight of this issue hit home for me today, standing outside the court building, looking at a patchwork cloth, sewn with much love and no doubt many tears, with each square bearing the names of just a few of the countless victims of armed drone attacks, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza and other places across the world: many of them children, from the age of just 1, upwards. We heard too, today, of children living in constant fear of the 'buzz' overhead, knowing that this could signal, at any moment, death and destruction, maiming and bereavement.

In the court hearing, and just as moving, the 'Waddington 6', defending themselves, bore witness with gentle humility, yet also boldness and sometimes forensic incisiveness, to the evil of drone warfare, this 'new phase' of warfare conducted by some of the world's most powerful countries against some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable. The hole in the fence of RAF Waddington was, among other things, an attempt to blow a hole in the veil of secrecy with which governments such as our own have sought to conceal the effects, the intentions, and the legal and moral questions of drone warfare. These six witnesses brought into the light not just its immorality, but also its illegality under international law.

They highlighted the huge human risks of these so-called 'risk free' attacks: that unmanned drones, 'piloted' by people at computer screens thousands of miles away, all too easily allow a 'video game' mentality to slip in, that real human beings become simply pixels on a computer screen, that an explosion in the wrong place becomes simply a 'bad shot', and that the illusion of 'pinpoint accuracy' masks the annihilation of ordinary non-combatants, gathered for wedding parties, playing in the streets, or sleeping in their homes.

They highlighted too that drone warfare dispenses with the usual 'political cost' of war, the very visible return to the UK of dead soldiers in coffins, and the tangible grief of bereaved British families. Such 'political cost', while always to be grieved, is one of the decisive factors which force governments to account for their decisions to engage in warfare, to engage in public moral debate about the 'justifications' for war, and to back down (as we've seen recently with regard to Syria) when the public view is sufficiently resistant. With drone warfare, no such visible 'political cost' is there - drone deployment, drone strikes, and drone casualties go unreported (and often even undisclosed) - governments imagine themselves free to deploy in secret, strike in secret, and kill - often with entirely unintended fatalities - in secret.

Finally, the witnesses today highlighted the principles of international humanitarian law which UK- and US-sponsored drone warfare violates. Firstly, the principle of 'humanity' - that attacks in war must not kill if they can injure, and must not injure if they can capture. Drone warfare allows no space for anything other than death. Imagine trying to surrender to a drone that you don't even know is targeting you. Secondly, then, the principle of 'distinction', requires attacks to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and expects non-combatants to be able to escape from war zones. Clearly drone warfare extends the 'war zone' to wherever the drones are flown over. And however good the technology, distinguishing a farmer digging a field from a combatant digging a mine is beyond the capacity of a remote-controlled, high-flying aircraft. Third and finally, a case should usually be made for the 'necessity' of a particular attack, or form of attack. With drones, the evidence suggests that if anything they are counter-productive, with some of the world's leading anti-terrorist experts highlighting drone attacks as 'recruitment fairs' for a new generation of anti-Western insurgents.

As well as the courage of the 'Waddington 6', we were blessed today with a magistrate who listened attentively, thoughtfully and compassionately. It was with a "heavy heart", he said, that he regretfully had to find the defendants guilty, and sentence them to pay a whopping £10 each costs to RAF Waddington for the damage they had done to the perimeter fence there. He also strongly urged the defendants, remarkably, to take today's decision to appeal - an acknowledgment, I would guess, that much bigger legal and moral questions are at stake.

The witness of my friend and his companions today hit my heart and guts, as well as my head. The challenge from here is how I let it affect my hands and my feet. But that's also the challenge for each and every one of us.

[See a report of today's trial at
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