Why won’t Obama arm Human Rights Watch?

Video of a Bahrain Defence Forces unit on the Budaiya Highway near al-Qadam, March 16, 2011. Visible are an M113 in front, with three others behind it on the ground and on the flyover, a Humvee, and a tank, possibly an M60. All are likely there thanks to US arms sales.  Bahiya al-Aradi, a Bahraini woman, and Stephen Abraham, an Indian guest worker, were murdered nearby the same day, probably by the same forces.

A couple of good pieces in Salon yesterday bear on the street cred the Obama administration has been getting for its embrace of LGBT people’s human rights. Kudos to Barack and Hillary again. Just remember: other people are getting killed.

Justin Elliott notes that the Obama administration has been delivering arms to Bahrain, despite the royal regime’s penchant for killing protesters. For some time, the administration has had a $53 million arms package for Bahrain on the table, but has put it off due to Congressional qualms and human rights groups’ opposition.  But this is a different package.   Obama is so eager to get hardware to the killers that he’ll exploit any technicality to permit it. Foreign Policy explains:

The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process …The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn’t meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation. …

Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification …

We’re further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain’s “external defense” and therefore couldn’t be used against protesters. Of course, that’s the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.

It’s not just Bahrainis. Glenn Greenwald observes that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed, with no public scandal attending him, that Obama can kill any US citizen he likes without a trial. In other words, what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki, US passport-holder killed by a drone in Yemen, could happen to you.

President Obama’s hit list of those he approves for assassination is completely secret; we only learned that Awlaki was being targeted because someone happened to leak that fact to Dana Priest. The way the process normally works, as Reuters described it, is that targeted Americans are selected “by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions”; moreover, “there is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel” nor “any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”  …

Panetta’s whole case rests on simply asserting, without proving, that Awlaki was a Terrorist trying to “kill Americans.” That, of course, is precisely what is in dispute: actual Yemen experts have long questioned whether Awlaki had any operational role at all in Al Qaeda (as opposed to a role as its advocate, which is clearly protected free speech). No evidence has been publicly presented that Awlaki had any such role. We simply have the untested, unverified accusations of government officials, such as Leon Panetta, that he is guilty: in other words, we have nothing but decrees of guilt.

The whole interview with Panetta is here: 

Obama loves his drones. As the Washington Post summarized, in an extensive report on the program last month,

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents. Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

George Monbiot in the Guardian elaborates on the consequences:


As a report last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed, of some 2,300 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 until August 2011, between 392 and 781 appear to have been civilians; 175 were children. … As soon as an agency claims “we never make mistakes”, you know that it has lost its moorings, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggested in his story of that title. Feeling no obligation to apologise or explain, count bodies or answer for its crimes, it becomes a danger to humanity.

It may be true, as the US air force says, that because a drone can circle and study a target for hours before it strikes, its missiles are less likely to kill civilians than those launched from a piloted plane. (The air force has yet to explain how it reconciles this with its boast that drones “greatly shorten decision time”.) But it must also be true that the easier and less risky a deployment is, the more likely it is to happen.

In other words: it might be the case that a drone kills fewer civilians than targeted bombings by humans. But we’ll use the drones even more than bombers, as Obama does, because they don’t put any humans on our side at risk. Hence more civilians will end up dead anyhow.

Protest against drone attacks, North Waziristan, Pakistan, January 2011

There is always something absurd, however murderous, about technology taking over the supremely personal job of exterminating persons.  Death is the one inalienably human thing about each of us, the one thing we cannot trade or give away. The more killing is alienated from human beings and handed over to machines, the less our own deaths seem our own property, somehow. What machine, in what hospital or killing field, will take responsibility for the last act?   But for sheer and sick absurdity, I don’t think you could go farther than the New York Times op-ed this morning, “Drones for Human Rights,” by the “co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network.” They note that “Drones are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan” anymore: “In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans.” Hooray! “It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy. With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and we could start with Syria.”

There’s hardly a sentence here I cannot quote with morbid delight. “Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers. For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria. …  It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But … We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?”


“Graphic and detailed evidence of crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just response, but it helps,” they conclude. “If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”

Drone in flight: Tremble, puny evildoers

I suppose no one will get far by arguing that evil has a right to privacy, or even a “right to be forgotten.”  But what about the ordinary person who finds her life monitored and recorded by sleek rockets overhead, in the name of “spying on evil?”  After all, the evil will come intermixed with a lot of snippets of normal life, and even normal peccadilloes, all for the human back somewhere at the end of the monitoring chain to sort into the appropriate categories. And does anyone really think the drones will stop at “monitoring” evil?  Won’t the pressure be enormous for somebody — if not the human rights groups themselves, then some friendly government — to use a drone to strike down the evildoer instantly with a virtuous lightning bolt, without the bother of a trial?  After all, these guys’ group is called the “Genocide Intervention Network,” not the “Genocide Observation Network.”

Indeed, why wait for the evil to be done? If you can predict someone is going to commit atrocities, by recording their conversations, or watching who they meet with, or Googling their blogs for “genocide,” why not act pre-emptively? (Oh, my God, how can I keep Google from registering this post? Now I will look up every time I step outdoors.) After all, that’s what the Obama administration says it’s doing: Didn’t al-Awlaki die, ostensibly, to save others from dying? And you do have to wonder. Human rights activists tout their endorsement of due process; but in secret, all too many long to become due process, expropriating the roles of police, prosecutor, judge and jury.  “Granted the chance,” as George Monbiot says, “to fulfil one of humankind’s abiding fantasies: to vaporise their enemies, as if with a curse or a prayer, effortlessly and from a safe distance” — granted the chance, how many of our unco guid, our insistently righteous, could keep on saying no?