Last week, the UN Human Rights Council began its 28th session in Geneva. At the same time, the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) has been screening a host of movies and documentaries across the city. WILPF has been covering both of these events, and today we publish this report from the screening of the documentary Drone, as it made its Swiss premiere on Sunday 1 March.
A new form of warfare
“The defining weapon of the War on Terror,” some people call them; a claim that is getting truer by the day. Drones – unmanned aircrafts controlled by an operator sitting in front of a screen far from the scene – are becoming a more and more common feature in modern warfare, especially in U.S.-operated attacks in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the use of drones grows, they are being increasingly questioned by the international community.
Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei takes on this burning issue in her documentary Drone, produced by Flimmer Film in 2014. The movie has a clear ambition to shed light on the topic of drones from all perspectives; from the people manufacturing and operating the drones, to the people who live in their threatening presence and fight for the rights that these drones have taken away from them.
“It’s only when it’s cloudy that we don’t hear the drones”, we hear a boy saying in the movie. He lives in Waziristan, the Pakistani region most frequently subjected to drone strikes by U.S. forces. “As soon as the sun comes out, the drones are back.” We learn that having drones hovering over their heads not only keeps children from attending school, but also paralyses everyday life for everyone in the area.
The myth of precision
Using drones is claimed to be a cheap, low-risk and effective way of waging war. Despite being promoted as a means of ensuring precision and efficient targeting with minimal collateral damage, there have been alarming reports on increasing numbers of civilian casualties caused by the use of armed drones.
In the movie, we meet Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar who is working for the families of some of these victims. He says he often gets asked how many innocent people have died in the drone strikes, and as he rightly points out, the question of innocence is completely irrelevant when the killings themselves are illegal.
The international community has stressed that drone strikes involve killings without due process that are violating international law and human rights, most importantly the right to life. There have been strong concerns that drone operations do not gather sufficient information to establish legal targets, resulting in indiscriminate killings. The precision of drones, so fondly asserted by their supporters, is a myth.
Killing from behind a screen
Someone who knows all about this crude reality is Brandon Bryant, a former US Air Force drone operator diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who is now speaking out to the world on what he experienced during his time flying drones. In the documentary, he describes the light-hearted, often nonchalant, atmosphere in the control room, half a world away from the people they were targeting, and how he himself grew more and more jaded for each strike: “You just point… and click.”
Only the start of the development
As the screen at Théâtre Pitoëff in Geneva fills with the images of children in Waziristan using their slingshots to shoot rocks at the drones flying overhead, the viewers cannot help but ask themselves what the true results of “the defining weapon of the War on Terror” really are. Can the so-called “War on Terror” ever be won on a battlefield filled with destroyed homes and shattered lives?
We learn that drone technology development is still in its early stages, and that today 87 countries have drones in some form, with more states seeking to procure them. The movie also raises the inevitable question of what happens when different non-state groups manage to acquire these weapons.
Drone makes us realise that we are only at the very beginning of a worrying development.
WILPF is monitoring the development of the use of drones and is participating in the debate. Read our publication Sex and Drone Strikes, where we express our concern about the use of maleness as a signifier of militancy in drone strike targeting. To learn more, you can also read our statement on armed drones and international law and our fact sheet on drones.