Constant Fear In Manzer Khel

Saturday 25 August 2012

In the last few days I've been working on a piece about 'unmanned aerial vehicles', or 'drones' as most people call them. I was interested to discover that there is a company based in England that has manufactured technology sold and exported to the United States for use as part of drone systems. The US uses its drones for controversial covert attacks in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - attacks that many believe are being conducted in violation of international law.

In a factory on a bland-looking industrial estate in Towcester, Northamptonshire, General Electrics Intelligence Platforms (GEIP) has produced single-board computers that it has acknowledged may be used on the ground stations that communicate with drones. The company says the parts are not used as part of "weapons systems" but are rather "used solely in connection with the operation of the aircraft itself." Nevertheless, human rights group Reprieve is demanding that the British government restrict exports of this technology for use in drones because it says it is "helping to kill, maim and terrify citizens."

What's particularly interesting is that lawyers acting on behalf of a Pakistani elder named Malik Jalal have sent a letter to the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) regarding technology exported by GEIP. Jalal lives in Manzer Khel, North Waziristan, a tribal village that has been hit by repeated strikes by US drones as part of a 'targeted killing' programme which has operated covertly in Pakistan since 2004. Jalal's lawyers, Tuckers, are requesting that BIS officials provide a series of answers about approvals of GEIP exports. The exports, they allege, are helping to facilitate strikes that are a violation of international law on armed conflict and a breach of human rights.

Most striking about the letter is one passage that describes an aspect of drones I hadn't considered before: their psychological impact. It is hard imagine what it must be like to know that there are remote control aircraft soaring 20,000ft in the sky above your head every day, armed with deadly 'Hellfire' missiles and on the hunt for groups of suspected militants. But this particular paragraph goes some way to explaining the profound and alarming effect it is having on the people living in North Waziristan. It's something I think everyone should read:

As a result of the UAV strikes, Malik Jalal and others residing in the area live in constant fear. There are very often UAVs hovering overhead. Members of Malik Jalal's tribe cannot tell whether they are intending to fire missiles or simply for surveillance, and the knowledge that any one of them at any time could launch a missile is unbearable. Malik Jalal as the tribal elder feels particularly helpless that he is unable to stop the UAVs and he fears for the physical safety of his family as well as the psychological effects, especially on the young, of the UAVs' presence. Even young children are aware of the UAVs and can see them and hear their buzzing overhead. The UAVs also affect the economy and daily life. People are scared to be out together in large groups or to travel with others in case they are mistaken for militants and targeted, and many parents are reluctant to send their children to school in case they are hit during the journey.

You can read the full lawyers' letter here.

It is estimated that up to 3,303 people have been killed in US drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004, including as many as 880 civilians. The issue is causing huge tension in the country and politicians have repeatedly called for America to stop its attacks - to no avail.

The BIS told me that it "takes is export licensing responsibilities seriously" but said that "we do not comment on individual licence requests, the application or the end user." Of more interest was what a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) told me when I called to query how the Royal Air Force uses drones. In an apparent attempt to distance the MoD from the increasingly controversial US bombings in places like Pakistan, the spokesman said: "I wouldn’t want you to confuse the way we operate drones with the way the Americans operate drones. They use them for wholly different missions."

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