CIVILIAN POPULATIONS

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 12 May 2009

by Jake Lynch

The ‘Ishaqi massacre’ of March 2006 made headlines because it triggered a rare public dispute between US occupying forces and Iraqi police, who accused Marines of rounding up 11 people, including five small children, shooting them and blowing up their house.

At the time the Pentagon said it was “highly unlikely that [the allegations] were true”. US authorities said the Marines were involved in a firefight after a tip-off that an al-Qaeda cell leader, Ahmad Abdallah Muhammad Na’is al-Utaybi, was visiting the house. According to the Americans, the building collapsed under heavy fire, killing four people – a suspect, two women and a child.

Later, in June of that year, the BBC obtained new video evidence, from a “hardline Sunni group”, of bodies showing gunshot wounds, shortly after the attack. It “appeared to contradict the US account”, the corporation said, in an article on its website, and programme production teams followed up the story, garnering responses from a wide range of speakers including a representative of the monitoring group, Human Rights Watch.

She was one of my ‘guests’ on BBC World Television News, due to speak down the line from the New York studio during one of the bulletins I was presenting that night. The case had drawn comparisons with the killing of 24 civilians at Haditha, in western Iraq, months earlier. That was now under investigation by the US military, and Human Rights Watch had been prominent in calling for more rigorous safeguards on the behaviour of American troops, to protect civilians caught up in the conflict.

Such are the conventions of BBC News that I knew I would have to develop a ‘contrapuntal’ line of questioning, a kind of mini-version of the well-known Hardtalk style. I began by asking her whether she could think of any war in history in which civilian bystanders had not been killed. No, she admitted, she couldn’t, bracing herself, perhaps, to insist on attempting to uphold standards of civilised behaviour, even in the face of their being inevitably breached.

Then came the unexpected. I turned the question round the other way: “If you want to avoid the killing of civilians, then shouldn’t you, as Human Rights Watch, simply oppose wars?” My interlocutor was visibly thrown, but recovered quickly: “No, no”, she replied, “that’s not our remit”.

Does this make sense? Governments like to pronounce themselves in favour of human rights, in general terms (although such talk can soon evaporate when lucrative trade deals are at stake, notably with the Chinese). Can this be compatible with states’ retaining the capacity and willingness to wage war? Richard Falk, UN Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has been writing recently about the shock he experienced on first visiting Vietnam, and witnessing the effects on the ground of a war planned and ordered by a “liberal elite” in Washington. How could these values be compatible with the misery and mayhem being inflicted, with utter impunity, on a defenceless population?

Edward Herman sought an explanation in Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, noting, of the US war machine, that:

“There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public” (1).

A reminder of this came with the visit to Washington this week of Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan. They nodded reassuringly for the cameras as US Senators – led by former presidential nominee, John Kerry – affirmed that America is “here to help” their countries. But it came just days after the devastation in the villages of Geraani and Gangabad, in Afghanistan’s western province of Farah, in which as many as 200 people were killed by US bombs.

The Afghan police and army stormed in after the Taliban arrived to collect a so-called tax on the area’s poppy farmers. Finding themselves in difficulties, they called in air support from the Americans. The tactic has exacted a steady stream of civilian casualties during the 91 months of warfare since the Taliban withdrew from Kabul, including several attacks on wedding parties, but this was perhaps the biggest group of innocent bystanders to have been slaughtered in one go.

Attack of the Drones

Time has done strange things to the distance Falk discerned, between the rarefied atmosphere of political Washington and faraway Vietnam. Increasingly, over Afghanistan and now Pakistan, bombing raids are being piloted not from the air but by button-pushers on the ground within the United States. This is the Attack of the Drones, with the familiar Predator aircraft (mainly used for surveillance) now being joined in the skies by the heavily armed MQ9 Reaper. Paul Rogers, the Bradford peace professor who writes a weekly column on the Open Democracy website, observes:

“The present reality of these ‘drone’ deployments is that United States forces are flying large and heavily armed aircraft over Pakistan for virtually every hour of every day, frequently accompanied by actual attacks. These air-raids have killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians and including scores of women and children”.

A separate report in a Lahore newspaper, The News, put the number of drone hits on Pakistan, in the first four months of 2009, at 60, with 14 al-Qaeda men having been killed along with 687 civilians. As with the Ishaqi incident, the figures are disputed, but, as Rogers says, “the pattern here is that the Pentagon or US spokespersons closer to the action tend to discount claims of civilian casualties immediately after a raid, only for independent evidence later to appear that confirms the initial local reports”.

This is the familiar political technique of rebuttal. To rebut a claim or allegation is not to refute it – that would involve providing evidence to disprove it, whereas rebuttal requires only a counter-claim to be entered. Its function is to maintain the contestability of what is being alleged, so it cannot be referred to as established fact. It belongs with the drone as a distinctive weapon of post-modern warfare, and their routine and overlapping use is systematically undermining the familiar principle of international law, set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, that “persons taking no active part in the hostilities” should be protected from harm.

That gets tricky when enemies like the Taliban and al-Qaeda ‘blend in’ with local populations, a tactic to compensate for overwhelming technological superiority on the other side and one which is, therefore, an obvious recourse for anyone setting out to oppose the US and its allies. Lest the distinctions implied in the Convention start to slip in such cases, it acquired an Additional Protocol in 1977, which specifies (as Article 50):

“The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character”.

Look at the respective lists of signatory states, however, and several who supported the provisions of 1949 have declined to do so for the later ones, notably the US itself, Israel and Sri Lanka.

The habit of rebuttal implies an ongoing assessment that harm to civilians who get ‘in the way’, while the enemy is being pursued, risks arousing public and political opposition to the extent that military operations could be compromised. That’s a legacy of Vietnam and the Pentagon techniques for media management that have evolved in a continuous arc of endeavour since the 1960s and been passed on to allied or friendly armies via training at military academies.

Both Israel and Sri Lanka have been implementing an interim stage of this strategy, one used by the US itself in the 1980s, when journalists were kept well away from the action in the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). The Israelis prevented international journalists from entering Gaza during their attack on the territory in December and January, and Sri Lanka has thrown a cordon around the last stronghold of the Tamil Tigers, an area which also includes a UN-declared safe haven for 150,000 civilians fleeing the fighting.

It means the truth about what is happening in there remains contested – when UN satellite images were leaked, showing clear evidence of shelling in the area, the Sri Lankan foreign minister maintained that this had taken place before civilians moved into it. The Associated Press newswire did report that one local area had been shelled more than 100 times in a 24-hour span, quoting an unnamed local government official who’d witnessed the barrage, describing how one shell had hit a tree and exploded, showering civilians with shrapnel and killing ten.

The UN estimated at the end of April that over 6,000 people had been killed in the attack, although, again, this was slipped out of the ‘back door’, being leaked to Colombo-based diplomats rather than announced at the organization’s headquarters. Later, the UK’s Channel Four News reported testimony from aid workers at IDP camps run by the Sri Lankan military that civilians were being abused and killed.

Some journalists, then, are bringing considerable effort and ingenuity to bear on the job of exposing what is going on, but there is not the critical mass of images and reactions that is typically required to bring about a change of course. What is needed is for the dots to be joined.

In Afghanistan, the US has, for some time, been rattling the begging the bowl for troop contingents from other countries. Australia, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany have all stepped up to the plate. All are signatories to the 1977 Additional Protocols, so all are committed to avoid attacks on civilian populations even when they contain military targets. Being allied with the US makes them complicit in the deadly drone attacks, however, even if they are not carrying them out themselves. That should be pointed out regularly and loudly, and media which ignore it are likewise complicit.

The Geneva Conventions are cornerstones of international humanitarian law but they are also staples of human rights provision, in the sense that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, as the first right of every human being, the right to life.

Today, in the US, human rights groups are gratified that, under President Barack Obama, the Bush-era use of torture has been brought to an end, even to the extent of possible prosecutions of former Administration officials (“a decision for the Attorney-General” Obama says). However, the deadly drumbeat of the drones continues in the background. There is, Falk writes:

“A most dangerous and unacceptable disconnect between condemning a reliance on torture while silently accommodating, or at least not vigorously protesting against the tactics and actualities of one-sided warfare of the sort that has plagued Iraq since 2003, exhibited in the Gulf War in 1991, as well as in the NATO Kosovo War of 1999, has been at the core of Israel’s approach to occupied Palestine since the Second Intifada (2000), especially evident in Israeli practice of targeted assassinations, Lebanon War of 2006, the Gaza blockade established in 2007, and the Gaza War of 2008-09”.

The drafting of the Geneva Conventions was left to the International Committee of the Red Cross because, as the UN international law office put it, “War having been outlawed, the regulation of its conduct has ceased to be relevant”. That turned out to be too rosy an assessment, of course, but the evidence is, for human rights to be protected, requires us to oppose war in all its forms. Anything else is a contradiction in terms.

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