5 May 2013
Organized opposition to weaponized combat drones in Europe is rising, with an effective halt to drone proliferation perhaps more likely in Europe than in the US.
In Washington on April 30th for a meeting with his counterpart Chuck Hagel, German Defense Minister Thomas de Mazière stated confidently that the US was ready to approve an official German request for three armed MQ-9 Reaper drone aircraft (formerly known as the "Predator B") and four ground control stations. He also revealed that the US Congress had already approved export of the weaponized drones to Germany on April 10th.
But will the German Parliament ("Bundestag") approve the purchase sought by the German Minister of Defense? While European military establishments are busily seeking to expand their arsenals with the killer drones, opposition is mounting, both in the parliaments and in the streets.
On April 27, across the Channel from Continental Europe, more than 600 activists gathered from all over the United Kingdom to march the four miles from Lincoln to the Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Waddington in the Ground the Drones - the largest anti-drone demonstration in Europe to date. A coalition of British organizations began organizing for the demonstration some months ago, after the RAF announced that it planned to increase its arsenal of hi-tech Reapers from five to ten and to begin using the Lincolnshire airbase to control surveillance and strikes of drones deployed to Afghanistan. Up until recently, British drone strikes have been controlled from Creech Air Base at Indian Springs in Nevada.
The UK, alone among European countries, has had weaponized drones for several years. In 2007 Britain purchased five MQ-9 Reapers from the California firm General Atomic for hi-tech surveillance in Afghanistan. Britain decided to "weaponize" the Reapers in 2008. Chris Nineham, vice-chairman of Stop the War Coalition, said the drones are being used to continue the "deeply unpopular war on terror" with no public scrutiny. "They're using them to fight wars behind our backs," he said.
Two days before the march to Waddington, the RAF announced that the first British drone strikes directed from UK soil had begun that day. And on that day, April 25th, representatives of the German Drone Campaign ("Drohnen-Kampagne") delivered an Open Letter to the British Ambassador, which was subsequently published in a German newspaper. In the letter, they set forth their objections to the "unilateral decision" of the British government to establish, at Waddington, "what will likely be the first European-based control center for drone warfare," which could "provoke a competitive rush of governments in Europe and elsewhere to acquire and use combat drones."
The German Drone Campaign was founded early in March 2013 to oppose the German government's plans " to use drone technology for purposes of combat, surveillance and oppression." In addition to the German government, several other governments in Europe, including Holland and France, are in the late stages of planning to acquire weaponized combat drones.
Beyond Germany, governments in several other European countries, including Holland and France, are in the late stages of planning to acquire weaponized combat drones. And in May, 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would soon notify the US Congress of plans to sell Italy "weaponization" kits to arm the Italian fleet of six US Reaper drones, a move that, according to the Wall Street Journal, "could open the door for sales of advanced hunter-killer drone technology to other allies."
Anti-drone movements, though long active in the UK, are only just starting up on the European Continent but may have the potential to take off rapidly. An international survey in 20 countries, conducted in 2012 by Pew Research, found widespread opposition to drone strikes in every country surveyed in Continental Europe: 51 percent in Poland, 55 percent in Italy, 59 percent in Germany, 62 percent in the Czech Republic, 63 percent in France, 76 percent in Spain, and 90 percent in Greece disapproved of drone strikes. A plurality of 47 percent in the United Kingdom told Pew they disapproved of drone strikes, while only 43 percent approved of them. (In contrast, the Pew survey found that only 28 percent in the US disapproved of drone strikes, while 62 percent approved of them.)
The German Drone Campaign was founded early in March 2013, to oppose the German government's plans "to use drone technology for purposes of combat, surveillance and oppression." The Campaign's Appeal, "No Combat Drones," which began circulating over the Easter weekend, had by the end of April already received 125 endorsements from key national and local peace and civil rights organizations and groups and from several political parties. Two of the endorsing parties, the Left ("Die LINKE") and the Green, between them have more than 20 percent of the seats in the German Parliament; though these two opposition parties have disagreed on many issues, including Afghanistan, both state they are opposed to Germany acquiring weaponized drones.
The other opposition party is the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has so far not taken a clear position against Germany acquiring weaponized drones; nevertheless, the Drone Campaign's Appeal has received a few significant endorsements from SPD members.
The heated debate about combat drones began in Germany in August 2012, after German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) told Die Welt newspaper that he would like to soon add weaponized drones to the German military's arsenal, saying he saw "no contradiction between the nature of the planes and Germany's non-aggressive military code."
But the German Defense Minister and the German government - the "ruling coalition" made up of the CDU, the closely allied Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) - had evidently misjudged the degree of public antipathy to Germany's growing militarism and to weaponized drones.
To win acceptance of German participation in NATO operations, German officials often try to reassure voters that the German military does not engage in the most brutal US practices, which are widely condemned in Germany. But now Germans were reading news stories about US drone strikes: the protests, debates, lawsuits and investigations such as the NYU/Stanford Law Schools' report, "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan," published in September 2012. And the interruption of the confirmation hearing of CIA chief John Brennan by Codepink activists in February was widely covered in Germany.
At the end of March 2013, facing mounting parliamentary and popular opposition in an election season, the ruling coalition led by the CDU said that there would be no "hasty decision" about weaponized drones until after the elections in September. So German drone opponents were outraged to learn, in mid-April, that the German government is in fact actively in negotiation regarding the Israeli Heron TP weaponized drone. Germany has been leasing three Israeli Heron 1 non-weaponized drones for surveillance in Afghanistan for some time; the lease is set to expire in 2014. The Israeli drone has the advantage of being easily transportable, and Israel would allow Germany to develop the drone technologically, whereas the US would prohibit Germany such upgrading of the US Reaper drone.
On April 25, after delivering the Drone Campaign's letter to the British Embassy, four of the anti-drone activists, members of the Berlin Peace Coordination (I was one of them), went to the German Parliament ("Bundestag"). A parliamentary debate had been scheduled for that afternoon on two separate opposition motions, brought by the Green and Left parliamentary groups, against any German acquisition of weaponized drones. Defense Minister de Mazière was present, watching the debate.
We had managed to obtain a small contingent of visitor seats in the observers' gallery. When the first CDU speaker approached the microphone, we suddenly stood up in the gallery, raised our hands - with palms now covered in blood-red paint - and called out loudly and repeatedly, "Ban Combat Drones, Sir!"
As we expected, we were quickly asked to leave. Uncertain about possible legal repercussions (as this form of activism is not usual in Germany), we did not put up resistance as we were escorted out. At the small police station in the Bundestag, we were identified, photographed, told that charges would be brought against us and released.
In a press release subsequently issued by the Berlin Peace Coordination, the activists stated that we "sought to bring attention the gravity of the upcoming decision by the German government, either for or against weaponized drones, in light of the growing international struggle to ban such weapons." We stated also that we wanted to show "solidarity with actions of US peace organizations such as Codepink." And indeed, our action was reminiscent of the internationally famous 2007 photo of Codepink's Desiree Ali-Fairooz confronting Condoleezza Rice with "bloody" hands.
But an image of bloody hands also evokes the specter of an ineradicable war guilt that is deeply disturbing to Germans. The anti-drone activists thus mocked the defense minister's claims that, in promoting the idea of weaponized drones for Germany, he is motivated by ethical intentions and that Germany would never follow the brutal path of present US policy.
In order to convince the German public to accept the killer drones, German government spokespersons insist that Germany would never use drones outside of declared war zones or without parliamentary approval (as the United States is doing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere) because the German constitution would forbid this. German military spokespersons claim that German drones would not be used for targeted killings, but only to protect the lives of German soldiers in the field, while at the same time, they claim, posing less risk of collateral damage to civilians because of the drones' purported accuracy. And German weapons manufacturers and their political allies request vast sums to develop German and European drone technology so as, they say, to avoid dependence on US drones and "questionable" US policies.
In an energetic pro-drone public-relations outreach campaign, Defense Minister de Maizière has even lately been approaching church leaders and peace groups in the spring of 2013 to assure them that weaponized drones are "ethically neutral" and can actually save lives. The response to this campaign has been decidedly mixed. "German drone, good drone" was the ironic headline of an article in a leading German daily that described a recent meeting of de Maizière with Catholic and Protestant church leaders. And when de Maizière tried to talk to a large audience of students in Berlin some weeks ago, they loudly and repeatedly chanted, "We love you, Thomas," and he was forced to leave without giving his speech.
On April 25, after the German anti-drone activists were escorted out of the parliamentary debate chambers, the Green and the Left parliamentary groups reiterated their firm opposition on Germany acquiring weaponized drone systems. The Left also argued that the German government should work toward an international ban of weaponized drones.
Among the SPD speakers, only Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul stated the strongest opposition to weaponized drones; she also criticized the ambiguous tactics of her own SPD parliamentary group on the drone question and she also objected to plans to develop a European combat drone. Wieczorek-Zeul was for more than ten years Germany's Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development and has signed the Drone Campaign's Appeal. But Bernd Siebert of the CDU stated cynically that his government would move to acquire weaponized drones for Germany as soon as the "political furor" in the lead-up to the upcoming general election in September had cooled off.
And on April 30th, less than a week later, came the reports -- again outraging drone opponents -- of de Mazière's meeting with Hagel in Washington. The Defense Minister has kept moving ahead to realize his dream of acquiring killer drones. Now it seems Germany can choose between the US Reaper and the Israeli Heron TP -- but only if the German Parliament approves purchase after the September elections.
Responding to de Mazière's statement from Washington, the SPD, Green and the Left leadership told the German press that they see no need whatsoever for Germany to acquire any weaponized drone. Reiner Arnold, the Defense Expert for the SPD, said to dpa, "I'm not aware of any actual battle scenario for which combat drones would be required." Jürgen Tritten, a leading candidate for the Greens, said, "We see absolutely no need for Germany to deploy them." And the head of the Left parliamentary group, Gregor Gysi, asked a television reporter from n-tv, "Why do we need combat drones now? Who do we want to kill?" The drones "are too far away," he said, "and I want people to feel responsibility for what they do."
Within the multi-party parliamentary systems of Germany and other European countries, some elected representatives will surely work to stop weaponized drones: far more so than US activists could ever hope for from members of the corporate-dominated two-party US Congress.
But the spread of weaponized drones will not be halted unless there are broad, deep and effective movements against drone warfare throughout Europe. Indeed, a consensus in Europe against weaponized drones may well prove to be strategically essential in order to achieve the much-needed international ban.
Despite the formidable obstacles of language and cultural barriers, different political systems and scant resources, Europeans and Americans urgently need to work together to create an international movement to stop drone proliferation and end drone warfare.
As the German Drone Campaign stated in its letter to the British ambassador: "European countries must not embrace this ominous new form of warfare! The new drone wars threaten to undermine the heritage of democratic laws, standards and safeguards established through centuries of struggle and deliberation."
Copyright 2013 Elsa Rassbach
Elsa Rassbach is US
citizen, filmmaker and journalist, who often lives and works in Berlin,
Germany. She heads the "GIs & US Bases" working group in DFG-VK (the
German affiliate of War Resisters International, WRI) and is active in
Code Pink, No to NATO, and the anti-drone campaign in Germany. Her film
short "We Were Soldiers in the 'War on Terror'" has just been released in
the U.S., and "The Killing Floor," her award-winning film set in the
Chicago Stockyards, will be re-released next year.