Drones a constant threat in Yemen

UN adviser Robert Johnson, formerly based in Yemen, writes: Re. “An Australian killed, to the studied indifference of his government” (yesterday). The presence of drones in Yemen has been a difficult issue for the Yemeni government precisely at a time when it has been trying to unite its people behind constitutional and military/security reforms to take it beyond the turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. For now, the United States’ “war on terror” in faraway places has trumped Yemeni efforts to achieve durable national reform.

Interim President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has — it is hard to say with what “encouragement” — endorsed the use of drones by the US administration. There are three indicators of the attitude of the Yemeni people to drones.  A 2013 UN “conflict assessment” cited a 2011 nationwide poll in which 96% of Yemenis “opposed the government’s counter-terrorism co-operation with the United States”. In August 2013, the widely participatory and representative National Dialogue Conference (NDC) — established as a key element of the transitional arrangements after the removal of long-serving and highly unpopular President Ali Abdullah Saleh — voted “overwhelmingly” that drone strikes in Yemen be criminalised. Then, in December 2013, the Yemen Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for a ban on the deployment of armed drones in the country.

Drone strikes in Yemen have expanded considerably under President Barack Obama. As Bernard Keane points out, official US silence on drone strikes makes information difficult to derive, especially when it more generally claims that all victims aged 18 and over are, by virtue of being at the target, automatically deemed to be terrorists. Data on casualties are generally derived from one of the three main so-called US “tracking sources”. Research published in 2012 by Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Clinic concluded that one of those sources — the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — was “more methodologically sound” (see what BIJ says about this incident here at November 19, including that the US appears to have told the Australian government but not the New Zealand government — which may have left PM JohnKey freer to comment). For the most reliable data available to me as at last September (while working with the UN in Yemen), of 24 children documented as having been killed by drone strikes, the single most vulnerable age group of children were under-five-year-old girls (nine killed).  This is presumably due to them having a higher likelihood of being in the family home when the drone hits.

In early 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UK QC Ben Emmerson, decided to focus attention on drones. In his annual report last month (via here), he reports that the increased frequency of drone strikes in Yemen had “result[ed] in a significant number of reported civilian casualties in the final weeks of 2013”.  He also points out that the purported case-by-case prior consent by the Yemeni government for US strikes instead appears to be a more general “agreement” made between the US and the previous president, evidently unaffected by the decisions of either the NDC or current Parliament.

On a note more directly linked to Keane’s article, the security situation in Yemen while I was living and working there (six months to end-September 2013) meant that I never saw (apart from when in the more secure and tourist-focused Old City) a “Westerner” on the streets of Sana’a, the capital. Except once. Sometime in (I think) early September, while walking home from a meeting in a nearby hotel, in the wonderful winding streets of the very old Al-Qa’a area, my colleague and I were approached by two young Australian men seeking directions. Both were dressed in “local” garb and seemed quite at ease being on the streets. It seems to me to be very likely that they were Harvard and Bin John. Two observations seem merited. Firstly, that they didn’t simply ask for directions in Arabic from the many Yemenis on the street suggests that their Arabic was, at best, not great and doesn’t speak well of claims of them being AQAP “foot soldiers”. Secondly (if they were indeed Harvard and Bin John), that they didn’t even ask us about our circumstances doesn’t speak well of their purported role in identifying Westerners as kidnapping targets. At any rate, my understanding is that foreigners kidnapped off the streets are, typically, only then taken to AQAP for a bounty rather than AQAP itself carrying out the kidnapping, although there may have been exceptions I didn’t know about.

Drawing conclusions from available information would seem to lead to something different than the Australian government’s apparent approach of working backwards from US loyalty, to construct a self-serving narrative from who knows what “intelligence” and filling in the remaining gaps to suit that starting point. In this sense, Christopher Harvard and Muslim Bin John seem to simply get added to a growing list of Australians abroad for whom Australian foreign policy interests override (or, at least, delay, as in several recent instances in the Middle East) their and their families rights to due diligence and strenuous representation.

iPad winner

Crikey writes: Congratulations to Roger de Robillard, who is our latest iPad winner.