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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Review: ‘Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS’

Fighting Extremes

Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS (iwm.org.uk)

At Imperial War Museum London until 13th November 2016

Fighting Extremes is the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition on recent British military engagement. The new exhibit uses images and objects to tell the story of the British military’s efforts, particularly the construction efforts, to help contain the Ebola virus epidemic in Sierra Leone between August 2014 and November 2015 and the combat efforts against ISIS in the Middle East.

Like its predecessor exhibition, War Story, which was supported by the MOD and arms manufacturer, Boeing, “Fighting Extremes” does not examine the context or history of the increased conflict in the Middle East.

What would a genuinely critical exhibit on the British role in fighting Ebola and ISIS say? It would not just praise the work of military personnel. Many were, indeed, courageous, like the British health worker volunteers. A critical exhibit would acknowledge the serious responsibility Britain has for the deaths caused by both the scourges of Ebola and ISIS.

Britain and its coalition partners, lead by the US, helped to create the conditions for ISIS to be formed through their invasion and occupation of Iraq. This has been conceded even by Tony Blair who lead Britain into the invasion. President Obama described ISIS as “a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion.”

When Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 developed into a civil war, the US and Britain provided “non-lethal” support, training and financial aid to the anti-Assad forces – and helped neighbouring allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to ship weapons to the rebels – amongst whom were extremist jihadis – despite the warnings.

“Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country,” two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned in 2013.

Now, Britain has turned its attack on ISIS in Syria – whilst its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, continue to support ISIS. The decision by the British Parliament to bomb ISIS targets in Syria has been condemned by many who reference disastrous recent interventions, such as the 2011 bombing of Libya, in which the UK and its allies exploited a UN mandate to protect civilians to attack Gaddafi forces. Libya has descended into civil war and mayhem and a hotbed for extremism and human and weapons trafficking. Some recent news reports suggest Britain will soon turn towards fighting ISIS in Libya.

The Imperial War Museum’s decision to juxtapose ISIS with Ebola is, perhaps, to depict ISIS as a disease that sprang out of nowhere. In truth, neither emerged ex nihilo but there are parallels which emerge from a look at the evidence.

ISIS and Ebola both “take advantage of the weakness and internal conflict of countries” according to UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Since its December 2013 outbreak, there have been 28,041 recorded Ebola cases and 11,302 deaths in West Africa. Many of those deaths were easily preventable.

The international response was “slow and derisory” according to charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) whose staff were overwhelmed from March 2014 by the virus. It was then that West Africa recognised that a public health crisis was underway but the World Health Organisation (WHO) only made the declaration in early August 2014. By then, some 900 people had died of the virus and many more were dying due to crumbling health systems.

The UK’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) would find in review that the UK response had been “inadequate”. As a major donor to international organisations, particularly, the WHO, the UK could have raised the alarm sooner to mobilise action, they said. The Committee found the UK government failed to release funds quickly enough and paid insufficient attention to NGOs, such as MSF, who were arguing for the necessity of a massive deployment of health workers and resources. Moreover, there was “no scientific justification for the UK Government’s decision to prevent direct flights to the affected region from the UK, which has likely increased the cost of dealing with the outbreak.”  Had the government acted sooner, “both lives and money would have been saved,” according to the report.

Why the inaction and delay? MSF was clear in its publication at the end of August 2014, when there were 1,427 reported victims of Ebola: “the international community community simply doesn’t feel responsible for responding to what is happening in regions that are not perceived as politically or economically interesting.”

The UK deployed 70 Royal engineers to Sierra Leone from August/September 2014 to commence building treatment and training centres. In all 1,500 British military personnel were deployed during an operation that lasted just over a year. The result, according to the government, was 6 UK funded treatment centres and the training of over 4,000 health care workers. “They are a credit to our country, they have saved a nation,” UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon said. The MOD was also able to call on hundreds of NHS volunteers in their efforts.

The morality of the UK and other states can be best judged by attitude before Ebola became an international security threat. As MSF identified, member states of the UN had allowed the operational capacity of the WHO to be weakened through reorganisation. The WHO’s haemorrhagic fever unit, for viruses such as Ebola, had been closed.

Between 2010 and 2012, experimental drugs and vaccines to combat the Ebola virus had been tested successfully on animals. However, they sat on the shelf untested on humans because they were not profitable. Only some 1,590 people had been killed by Ebola prior to the 2013/14 outbreak. “Malaria kills as many people each day as this outbreak has killed so far. We must try to keep things in perspective,” Peter Holez, director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington said, when the death toll was around 900 in early August 2014.

Clinical trials have been brought forward and results published this year are promising. One vaccine, the rVSV-ZEBOV showed 100% effectiveness in interim trial results. The few samples of experimental drugs/vaccines that existed in 2014 also showed promise when used in emergency situations during the outbreak, mainly benefiting Western aid workers.

The IMF has played a key role in preventing the development of health services in countries such as Sierra Leone. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, that country had 120 doctors and 1 virologist, who was to be an early victim of the epidemic. A 20 year long IMF policy of requiring debtor nations to prioritise debt repayments and building foreign exchange reserves over healthcare spending had, “contributed to under-funded, insufficiently trained and poorly prepared health systems in countries with Ebola outbreaks,” according to a study published in the Lancet.

The UK is a shareholder in the IMF and World Bank and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and International Development Secretary sit on the ministerial committees of the Washington-based organisations.

Some concession to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the worst hit nations, was made in early 2015 when the IMF cancelled almonst $100 million debt and made new loans of $160 million. The immediate relief was welcomed but longer-term IMF indebtedness of these countries will increase from $410 to $620 million. The West has a responsibility to cancel the debt owed by these devastated states to the IMF which made $9 billion in lending over the last three years.

When the Western states did act, some five months and hundreds of deaths after help was asked for,  it did so along familiar imperial lines. The US, UK and France intervened in their areas of colonial influence: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea respectively. Moreover, they responded to a public health crisis primarily through their military.

“The only positive development to come from the epidemic is that it attracted long needed attention from drug makers,” according to Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Neglected diseases affect some one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – and threaten many more.

The legacy of Ebola will live long. With Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone having lost many of their health workers, maternal mortality could rise as much as 74% in Sierra Leone and 111% in Liberia, according to the World Bank.

As long as we deny vast swathes of history and evidence regarding the UK’s and other developed nations’ role in the world, we can expect the devastation to continue.