When I spoke with Shahzad Akbar recently, he reflected on the objectives of the upcoming first international drone summit in Washington DC, and on his concerns about drone operations in South Asia and the Middle East
Shahzad Akbar can no longer travel to the United States.
Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer who founded the human rights organization Foundation for Fundamental Rights in 2010 and represents the family members of noncombatant victims of US drone strikes.
Columbia University invited Akbar to speak at a law school forum in May 2011, but he couldn't get a visa, even though he has been to the United States multiple times and used to work as a consultant for US agencies.
Akbar is scheduled to speak at the upcoming first international drone summit in Washington DC, on April 28 and 29. The State Department, however, says that there is a problem getting the necessary authorization from the "Homeland Security structure."
Given that Akbar wants to talk about the CIA's clandestine drone operations and the military's Joint Operations Intelligence Centers (JOIC), keeping him out of the United States and far away from the US public and the US media might seem to make good sense from the point of view of the Obama administration.
Why, after all, would the US government facilitate an open dialogue at home while it mounts these extensive, clandestine operations overseas?
Yet it is Akbar's contention that the fundamental issues are not about security, but rather, they are about the constitutional right of due process, upholding the rule of law and ensuring proper Congressional and judiciary oversight.
The organizers and sponsors of the summit contend that, unless the Obama administration subjects its extensive drone operations to the rule of law, it is effectively undermining the very US interests and values that the CIA, the military and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are supposed to be protecting.
In an op-ed Akbar penned for The Guardian after he was denied a visa to speak at Columbia last year, he wrote: "Instead of preventing me from speaking with American colleagues about these legal cases, the US government should support our attempt at justice within the law - even if it disagrees with our view of the facts. Let us debate and sometimes disagree; after all, that is how American justice is supposed to be done."
Leili Kashani of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the sponsors of the upcoming summit, said, "By refusing to grant Shahzad Akbar a visa to speak at the Drone Summit, the Obama administration is further silencing discussion about the impact of its targeted killing program on people in Pakistan and around the world."
Here's what Akbar has to say.
Tom Barry: Is the Drone Summit really necessary? What could possibly be accomplished?
Shahzad Akbar: It is vital to put the debate on drones in the right perspective, with information from sources on ground , away from the US State Department's narrative that is given to the American public. The US drone policy is becoming a vital part of US foreign policy in conflict zones, and people at home need to know more about what their government is doing, more then just their own health care and housing issues. What the people in the United States decide in their elections has reaching consequences on the rest of the world.
A debate including all stakeholders can bring transparency and accountability to the drone program, which is currently being run by the CIA without information as to its operations being made available to the US public or their Congressional representatives.
TB: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the government's term for drones, are now used widely for aerial surveillance and intelligence gathering, and they are also used to make targeted kills. Aren't the two uses very different, with different legal ramifications, and as such, shouldn't they be addressed at separate meetings - one on civil liberties and another on extrajudicial killings?
SA: The proliferation of drones raises fundamental concerns about the rights of individuals, whether drones are used for surveillance or as killing machines. We need to determine what latitude we are ready to give to government to usurp the rights of individuals - and under what circumstances? Should we rely on the unfettered discretion of intelligence and covert agencies in the name of making us safe? The emphasis needs to be on due process in the rule of law and in judicial/representative oversight. This can be the beginning of it, and later, we can debate whether drones used for surveillance or for killing is right or wrong.
TB: Is this drone issue simply the latest cause of the left/progressives, who are fundamentally anti-war, anti-United States, anti-national security? Or are there constituencies and organizations that represent other sectors of the political spectrum concerned about the issues that will be addressed during the Drone Summit?
SA: For us, questioning drone strikes is not a so-called anti-war/anti-national security pastime activity. Rather, it is a question of the fundamental right to life. Real people, mostly civilians, are being killed by a foreign nation without any due process or recognition. The victims become just numbers in news reports claiming that so many militants have been killed in a drone strikes, as if that was all there was to it - nothing more!
We [the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Rights and Reprieve, a fellow human rights organization] along with other rights groups, are not on a fashionable parade of an anti-war agenda. Rather, it is, for us, a question of bare survival - the survival of real people who do not have any voice to access the world outside their tribal lands. They are being slaughtered for the sake of the Great Game in South Asia.
Those who might represent the other side could only be those who think that killing anyone without due process is permissible or can be right under certain circumstances. I believe that such defenders of the current policy and practices would mainly be either governments or their think tanks that address what are called strategic-depth issues.
TB: Isn't it possible that drones could be considered an instrument for peace and for the rule of law, rather than just a danger or a threat?
SA: We are by no means anti-technology. All scientific discoveries, when used in the right way, have helped humanity a great deal. But the question remains the same: Can we trust a program that has existed for eight years, provides no information as to its process of targeted killings, faces zero accountability and has killed almost 3,000 people whose identities are not known to their killers?
TB: With the US military presence in Iraq dwindling and the US warfighting winding down in South Asia, aren't the issues you raise about drone victims and illegal drone strikes also going away? How relevant are they to the new foreign policy environment?
SA: As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq, drones will become more relevant. UAVs are the new weapon of American policing of the world. The US government is budgeting a huge amount for drone purchases. Indicators are that the United States will keep its drone program in South Asia even after withdrawal of boots off the ground.
Drones are deemed an eminently viable solution for US foreign and military policy, since having boots on the ground is so problematic politically.
In South Asia and in the Middle East, drones will surely be used more in the future. This constitutes a real threat to world peace, especially if the United States or Israel deploys drones in Iran. Following the US precedent, India could use drones to interfere in Pakistan - which could precipitate a war between two nuclear states.
In short, with changing environments in South Asia and in the Middle East, drones are going be an increasing part of international affairs. Yet there are no laws covering this new technology, which represents a major threat to the rule of law, both nationally and internationally.
TB: Are there any other matters that you believe should be mentioned about the Drone Summit, or about drone proliferation in general?
SA: The American people and taxpayers need to know that their money is being used to kill people in another part of the world - people who are no threat to the United States. However, through its clandestine drone program, the US government is certainly making new enemies and promoting new militancy against the United States as a consequence of its killer drones.
You can register here for the Drone Summit in Washington DC April 28-29.