Coming Soon: Military Drones and Pakistani Folk Art by Mahwish Chishty

Recent revelations have put Britain further to the centre of the US-lead drone assassination programme that targets multiple countries, including those where they are not officially at war. This makes timely IWM London’s showing of an art exhibition combining drones and Pakistani traditional art by Mahwish Chishty running from 19 October 2016 – 19 March 2017.

IWM is partially funded by the government, receives large donations from weapons manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing and has worked closely on exhibitions with the Ministry of Defence. Nearly all of the Museums’ trustees come from the upper echelons of the corporate, security and military sectors. Therefore, the Museum’s coverage of drone surveillance and assassination, particularly, British involvement, will be a test of its editorial integrity and independence.

It has recently been reported, thanks to leaked documents from Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) conduct intelligence gathering for lethal drone strikes from British soil. Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has been an NSA base since the Cold War and its modern activities have been secret. The British government has refused to answer questions on what goes on but has insisted that operations have their “full knowledge and consent” according to The Intercept’s exclusive report.

From the leaked documents, we now know that Menwith Hill is used by the US to capture foreign satellite communications and to, also, capture wireless communications with the help of satellites orbiting over foreign countries. This information has been used in capture or kill operations, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but, also, in Yemen and, likely, in Pakistan and Somalia.

Jemima Stratford QC, a British human rights lawyer, advised Parliament in 2014 that British collusion in drone strikes outside of conventional warzones could give rise to charges of murder. “If the U.K. government knows that it is transferring data that may be used for drone strikes against non-combatants … that transfer is probably unlawful. An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder.”

It is known that Britain has conducted its own lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, first from a US base and, then, from Britain. Recently, a British drone killed three alleged members of ISIS in Syria, in what the UK government justified as self-defence against the threat of ISIS.

Britain has also been involved in the US’ drone assassination programme – British drone operators have been “embedded” with the US and assisted in conducting their strikes.  Ben Emmerson QC, who lead a UN drones investigation, told Parliament that it was “inevitable” that Britain was giving the US intelligence for drone strikes, given the close intelligence sharing relationship between them.

The new Snowden leaks reveal that British participation in the US drone assassination is even stronger, with British soil being used to help collect intelligence for attacks. The ties could go further, given that around 600 staff from UK agencies, including GCHQ, work at the site – perhaps, verifying Ben Emmerson’s QC’s strong suspicion that the UK is working with the US on gathering intelligence for US drone strikes.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that between 424-966 civilians have died in Pakistan from US drone strikes since 2004. 573-833 Yemeni civilians are thought to have been killed since attacks started in that country in 2002.

Lies and secrecy have been the hallmark of the drone programme, creating a mythology that Mahwish Chishty’s paintings of drones tap into. In 2011, the US’ counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely claimed that in the previous year there had been no “collateral” deaths from US drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found there to be 40 civilian deaths – and these were only the individuals that they could verify by name.

It is still not known why the US targeted and killed in Yemen 16 year-old US citizen,  Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in 2011. He died, along with his 17 year old cousin and several other people in the vicinity of the open-café where they ate. Abdulrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical preacher accused of being an al-Qaeda operative who the US killed by drone strike two weeks before killing his son. However, Abdulrahman had no connection to terrorism. Senior Obama re-election advisor, Robert Gibbs, suggested that the 16 year old should have had “a more responsible father”.

The US’ figures for civilian deaths from drones has been consistently lower than those from independent sources. A significant reason for this is that the US have the policy of treating any military aged male in a strike zone as a ‘terrorist,’ unless posthumous evidence reveals otherwise. Given that it is difficult for investigators and journalists to reach remote tribal regions in Pakistan or Afghanistan where a strike might occur, the US’ policy ensures that civilian deaths will be routinely hidden.

The US is known to have conducted “double tap” drone strikes, whereby a strike is followed up by another. As a result, first responders, passers-by, friends and family coming to the aid of victims, have been struck and killed.

There have been incidents of drone strikes targeting social gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, where innocent civilians are sure to injured or killed. The threat of such indiscriminate strikes have inhibited targeted populations from participating in normal cultural and community activities that involve gatherings. People have also become reluctant to go to the aid of victims in fear of a follow-up strike.

The very presence of drones in the sky is a constant and traumatising presence for communities in the north-west tribal areas of Pakistan. A joint investigation by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, found mental health illnesses in targeted populations, including insomnia, anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the presence of drones in the sky.

One interviewee, Haroon Quddoos, a Pakistani taxi driver who was injured in a strike, told the investigators: “We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do. It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us . . . . No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.”

Inevitably, drone strikes are turning populations against the US, as Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi described of his village which was struck by a drone strike: “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”

IWM’s Drone Test

IWM London’s first exhibition on military drones ran in the summer of 2014. “5,000 Feet is Best” by Omer Fast was a video installation focused on the psychological effects of working as a drone operator. The title referred to the ideal height for a drone.

As I outlined in my review of that exhibition, whilst it is important that IWM began to address this relatively new weapon and the judicial process-free assassination programme, the real victims are not the operators.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon argued,  “I don’t doubt that some drone attackers experience some psychological stress from knowing that they are eradicating human beings with their joysticks and red buttons (though if it’s only “bugs” who are being splattered, why would the stress be particularly burdensome?). But that stress is nothing compared to the terror routinely imposed on the populations in numerous Muslim countries who are being targeted with these attacks.”

To make an informed decision on the drone programme and British involvement, the public must know the impact on victim populations. The raw, painful but important photography of Noor Behram, who visits the aftermath of strikes in Pakistan and takes pictures of the effects, including the injured and the dead, provides us real evidence of what the British government is participating in.

Mahwish Chishty’s upcoming art exhibition at IWM London is a positive step, for it gives a platform for a Pakistani artist with family and friends in that targeted country to express herself on the matter. Her art in this exhibit draws from traditional Afghan/Pakistani “truck art” – intricate artwork that truck drivers cover their vehicles with – is multi-faceted and suggestive, inviting us to reconsider what we think we know about the drone assassination programme and its impact on countries like Pakistan.

Update: Al Jazeera reports on Karim Khan’s legal case against the CIA for the drone killings of his son and brother in Pakistan.

http://players.brightcove.net/665003303001/4k5gFJHRe_default/index.html?videoId=5141147944001&autoplay

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The Falsity of Museum Neutrality

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Code of Ethics launch by the Museum Association, 2016 (Museums + Heritage Advisor)

In a recent speech, Dr David Fleming, President of the Museum Association, discussed the ethics of museum funding and partnering. He recognised the ethical responsibility of museums in making such decisions – and decried the falsity of the claim that museums are neutral.

“I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.”

Dr Fleming gave two examples of decisions made by his own institution, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) where he is director. It was important, he said, for staff to “stifle any personal view” – though, he recognised that they will unavoidably play some part.

A political party with “a whiff of racism” successfully hired a conference space from NML. Dr Fleming argued that, as the political party did not reject democracy and the deal could be done on a purely business footing, with no association with NML – it should not be spurned.

On the other hand, the hiring of an exhibition from another museum that was funded and named after a company involved with a military railway in a conflict zone was aborted. NML found “an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation”.

In both decisions, Dr Fleming admits that, however much he and his colleagues tried, personal views necessarily affected the outcomes. “Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.”

The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums rejects the idea that museums should be neutral. If personal views of staff should be “stifled” the institutional code of ethics should be positively upheld. The Code of Ethics requires museums to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity.

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For a museum to resist influence and promote “editorial integrity” it must have positive institutional ethical values and must certainly not be neutral. Without editorial or intellectual independence, it fails its public service duty. Specifically, it can no longer “(e)nsure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum.” (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.7). Nor can it fulfil its duty of providing and generating accurate information (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.4).

Not only must museums have Ethics Committees advising their decision-makers, as the NML has, but, also, a clear statement of ethical values. Most museums endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics but, I believe that more institution specific statements are required, addressing ethical issues in their subject matter.

Moreover, rather than estimating public perception and just worrying about their reputation – museums should directly involve the public in their decisions.

This way, ethical decisions of funding and partnering are not mainly decided in a murky mixture of personal staff views (and it’s not the cleaning or security staff’s views that usually creep into the decisions) and estimates about the public reaction – but, also, a clear and considered internal ethical assessment.

If the Science Museum accepts oil company, BP, as a sponsor can it remain editorially independent and uphold its ethical views? Or, what about when the Imperial War Museum accepts donations from the Ministry of Defence and arms manufacturers? Perhaps, it is possible, but we certainly cannot know unless we know what their ethical views are and how they make each particular decision.

Loyalist Murder Weapon Found at IWM

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

A potentially important piece of evidence of British participation in loyalist paramilitary terrorism in Northern Ireland has been discovered in a display case in the Imperial War Museum London.

A BBC panorama show has revealed that a VZ58 automatic assault gun, until recently held on display by the Museum, has been identified by investigators as a weapon used in the loyalist paramilitary attack on a bookmakers in south Belfast. On 5th February 1992, two gunmen entered Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road and gunned down five civilians, including a fifteen year old who died from his injuries in hospital.

The unsolved killings have long been suspected as a case of collusion by state forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabularly (RUC) and British Army military intelligence, with the paramilitary force that claimed the killing, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Investigations by Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Stevens Inquiry III  had discovered that, in 1989, RUC Special Branch had received a 5mm Browning handgun from an agent who operated in the UDA, only to return it to the group, supposedly in a deactivated state. However, the gun was then used in two further attacks which killed six people, including the five innocent civilians in Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road.

The other murder weapon, the VZ58 Czech-made assault gun was allegedly destroyed by the RUC. However, Darragh McIntyre in his BBC Panorama show reveals that the gun has been on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. Officers from Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman have reportedly taken possession of the weapon for tests.

The gun could directly connect British intelligence to the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings, as well as the murders of two Catholic men in 1988 to which the gun is linked. British military intelligence are known to have hired a UDA operative, Brian Nelson, to travel to South Africa in 1985 to meet an arms dealer. Two years later, in December 1987, a shipment of weapons, including a large quantity of VZ58s, arrived at Belfast.

British sources say that the shipment slipped through the radar of their surveillance. Whilst some of the weapons were recovered by the RUC, the rearmament intensified loyalist attacks. According to The Guardian, in the six years before the shipment, loyalists had killed around 70 people. In the subsequent six years around 230 were killed.

The VZ58 assault gun found at IWM is also linked to the 1988 murders of Seamus Morris and Peter Dolan by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), as well as the attempted murder of Gerard Burns in March of that year. The UDA were in possession of the weapon when their members carried out the Bookmakers killings before the RUC supposedly destroyed it.

As in a number of other cases, it is suspected that not only was at least one of the murder weapons procured with direct British assistance but that a British agent was amongst the murderers. One of prime suspects in the Bookmakers killings was never arrested or publicly identified, despite being known to intelligence.

In 2012, relatives of the six victims of the 1994 loyalist attack in Loughinisland, County Down, brought legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion in the deaths. A VZ58 assault gun was used in the shootings and part of the families’ claim focuses on British involvement in arming the killers.

This year, families of more than 100 victims have brought a challenge to the chief constable of the PSNI in the courts. The High Court heard from a HET senior investigating officer that a draft report into collusion during the 1970s between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups had been shelved without explanation.

The discovery of the gun at IWM could support such cases, as well as justify the re-opening of the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings case. The position of the victims’ families has also been strengthened by the legal victory last year that forced the handing over of intelligence files on informers by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman.

Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into a “policy where the police, army and MI5 worked with illegal paramilitary groups, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of people.”

 

Chemring Group and IWM

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Chemring Group was the sponsor of the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, a major annual networking event for the arms trade held at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, on Wednesday 23rd May 2012. Chemring has sponsored this annual event at IWM in previous years – at least since 2010.

In the literature promoting the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, Chemring, depicts itself as a provider of products “predominantly (to) protect military people and platforms, providing insurance against a constantly changing threat.”

However, over half of Chemring’s revenues derive from munitions and pyrotechnics. Explosive material and technology, ammunition, grenades, tear gas and small arms are easily put to offensive use, both in aggressive application and threat, when sold and used without basic humane judgement or controls.

Chemring’s weapons continue to be marketed and sold to clients who carry out human rights abuses. Chemring attended the LAVEX 2009 arms fair in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The corporations website identifies the Middle East as a destination for a number of its munition and weapon products. The Saudi Arabian regime is a significant market and Chemring is officially associated with Saudi Eraad Defense Systems, a Saudi Arabian company that provides “professional and discreet services as in-country support/marketing company.”

As reported by the Independent newspaper in December 2011, Chemring’s tear gas cannisters were put to use against Tahrir Square protesters by the Egyptian security forces in 2011. The effects on protesters, exacerbated, it has been suggested, by toxicity brought on by the age of the gas (some cannisters dated from 1995), inflicted convulsions, burning and asphyxiation on protesters.

Chemring, as well as the British government which licences such sales, cannot not be aware of the misery and abuse that their actions are enabling. For example, Saudi Arabia’s repression of its population is very well documented. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own human rights report cites Saudi Arabia as a country “of concern” due to its human rights and civil liberties abuses. The FCO says that the number of executions are “alarming”. Women cannot vote or play sport. All public demonstrations are banned; those who have defied this with peaceful protest have found themselves charged, imprisoned and sometimes tortured.

The repression endured by the Saudi population is exemplified by the case of Mohammed Salama. Human Rights Watch report that he has been detained without charge or trial since April 2012 having been arrested for posting personal Twitter comments critical of certain interpretations of Islamic text. He remains in indefinite detention with other peaceful protesters and activists.

For Chemring to provide such regimes with weapons and technology is to implicate itself in the heinous daily crimes, ensuring that people live in a constant nightmare. The Imperial War Museum, as a public museum dedicated to recording the true effects of warfare, must take a humane stance and not itself become complicit by taking money or associating with such activity.

Yet, Chemring’s dealings with the Middle East are not its only stain. The company provides technology and explosives for United States UAVS or drones. Their Norwegian subsidiary, Chemring Nobel, provides explosive substances for Hellfire rockets fired from US drones.

The US’ covert drone attack campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia has claimed the lives of many innocent civilians. Whilst defenders assert drone attacks as being precise, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report hundreds of civilian deaths, including scores of children. The UN has condemned the lack of monitoring by the US and launched an investigation into this “collateral damage”.

Moreover, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drone attacks have targeted rescuers and funeral goers. The claim of precise attack is undermined by such follow-up attacks when people gather to deal with the aftermath of an initial attack. Additionally, the US carry out what are known as “signature strikes”; whereby victims are identified for assassination not by specific intelligence about their identity but merely on the basis of their behaviour and activities.

The US administration has refused to release the precise legal justification for their actions. Until recently, they refused to confirm or deny the existence of the campaign. Now, they defend more generally on the basis that they are involved in a worldwide conflict against terrorists – there is not time for judicial involvement in this precise strategy. However, many independent legal experts refute this. The US is not at war with Yemen or Pakistan, it does not face imminent threat and therefore is violating international law by carrying out extra-judicial assassinations.

Beyond the legal arguments, the devastation on innocent people is far-reaching. The threat of drones hangs over these people on a constant basis, interfering with their daily lives; making them afraid to meet or travel. A joint study by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, named, Living Under Drones, found high levels of trauma, including insomnia, nervous breakdown and severe anxiety amongst populations living under the threat. The study found that people avoid attending the funerals of victims or even providing assistance in the aftermath of an attack in fear of a follow-up strike.

Conclusion

There is a legitimate argument for a regulated and controlled arms trade. However, the status quo is a far cry from this. British weapons and technology are actively sold to some of the most brutal regimes and enable devastating human rights abuses, including by our own government and allies.

The global arms trade and its profiteers are, at least, amoral and wilfully blind about the misery being enabled. The Imperial War Museum must not be so callous. The Museum should not associate with arms manufacturers or traders and should cease to accept event hire contracts, such as the Annual Defence Dinner, sponsored and attended by such corporations as Chemring Group.

The Museum also receives donations from corporations whose human rights records are even worse than that of Chemring Group, such as BAE Systems. I urge the Trustees to be humane and cease to accept such blood money.

If basic morality is not sufficient reason to disassociate, the conflict of interests created by taking money from war profiteers must be. IWM cannot be intellectually free in its duty of recording the human consequences of war if it is financially reliant on war profiteers.