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Peace conference puts face to drone victims

April 30, 2012

protest-against-drone-strikes
Protesters staging a demonstration against drone attacks in Pakistan.— AFP File Photo

WASHINGTON: Drone victims are not just figures on a piece of paper, they are real people and that’s why it is important to see what happens on the ground when a missile hits a target, argues Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar.

“We have to see what exactly is happening on the ground, what is happening to the people,” he told a Washington conference on drones.

“We apologise to the people of Pakistan for the strikes that have killed so many civilians,” said Nancy Maneiar, a peace activist associated with the US-based, anti-war Code Pink Group.

“The CIA needs to be held accountable for their strikes.”

"Those who order a drone strike act at once “as prosecutors, judges, jury and executioners,” said journalist Jeremy Scahill who recently travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to observe the consequences of the drone war.

“This is lawless activity that the US is indulging in around the world,” he said.

“War on terror is an oxymoron. How can you end terrorism by spreading terror via horrific remote control killing machines,” said Dr Amna Buttar, a PPP MPA from Punjab.

“All 190 million people are the victims of this remote-controlled war.”

They were among two dozen peace activists, lawyers, journalists and retired military officials attending a two-day conference, which began in Washington on Saturday.

International peace groups had to lobby hard for Akbar to attend the conference as the US government delayed his visa application for 14 months because he has sued the CIA over drone strikes in Pakistan.

Akbar told an audience of about 300 people from across the United States that it was important to put faces on the drone victims; otherwise people will not understand their plight.

“They feel this imminent threat of being attacked from the sky. And they feel helpless because they have no other place to relocate. Many have no skills, no education, so they cannot relocate to other parts of Pakistan,” he said. Advocate Akbar showed a photo of a teenager named Saadullah, who was helping his mother in the kitchen when a drone hit their home in Fata in 2009. He woke up in a hospital three days later without his legs.

Sanaullah, a 17-year-old pre-engineering student, burned alive in his car during another strike in 2010.

Akbar also showed photos of the Bismillah family: mother, father, a daughter and a son, all killed in a drone strike.

Other speakers noted that US drone strikes in Pakistan had also killed 168 children. They quoted from recent surveys suggesting the number of ordinary people killed could be 40 per cent higher than previously reported.

US officials, however, have rejected such studies as “exaggerated”, and said the “the claims of extensive non-combatant casualties are uncorroborated”.

The “Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control,” organised by American human rights groups, noted that there had been a lethal rise in the number of drone strikes under the Obama administration.

President Obama argues that drone strikes are focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists and have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.

Supporters of drone warfare say the drone technology is an accurate and less expensive weapon that minimises risks to US troops and protects America by killing terrorists.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder and director of Reprieve, an organisation that helped secure the release of 65 prisoners from notorious Guantanamo Bay, also highlighted this point.

“We can kill people without any risk to ourselves and that’s why the politicians like it,” said Smith while addressing the drone conference.

Other panellists noted that US drones had the potential to be equipped with heat sensors, Geographic Positioning Systems, licence-plate readers, extremely high resolution cameras, infrared cameras, and facial-recognition software. Coordinated swarms easily could track people’s daily movement from home to the office to a political rally to the grocery store.