Thursday, May 29, 2014

Government blasé on Australian drone deaths Justin Glyn | 26 May 2014

Eureka Street

Justin Glyn | 26 May 2014

Drone While the last couple of weeks have been taken up with thinking about the Budget and its disproportionate impact on poorer Australians, another, more spectacular, area of government disregard for the lives and rights of its citizens has gone relatively unremarked.

This is a problem that goes to the heart of democracy, revealing not only the distance between Western governments and their citizens, but also the acceptance of that gulf as a fact of modern political life.

In April, it was revealed that two Australians, Christopher Harvard and Darryl Jones, aka Muslim bin John (also a New Zealand national), were killed by an American drone strike in Yemen in November. John Key, the New Zealand Prime Minister, has said his government has taken no legal advice in relation to the drone program's legality but will, notwithstanding the killing, continue to share intelligence on its nationals with the US.

New Zealand's cavalier approach in this regard is well known. Its response to the revelation that GCSB (the NZ equivalent of ASIO) was unlawfully spying on its citizens was to amend its governing statute to enshrine the spying in law. As one wit put it: 'GCSB — the only government department that will actually listen to you.'

This problem does not stop across the ditch. Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Dirty Wars, makes the point that the Australians are heavily implicated in sharing information leading to drone strikes, and that the Australian Government seems indifferent to what the US does with the information Australia shares with it. The deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki (who was suspected of Al Qaeda links) and his son (who was not) in 2011 showed that the US itself (notwithstanding its famous Constitution) is quite comfortable with drone strikes against US nationals.

It is worth taking a step back beyond the 'War on Terror' slogans to see what is going on here. Three governments of what are supposedly Western democracies are at best passive spectators and at worst active participants in the killing of their own citizens. These killings are conducted by intelligence and military forces with at best nominal civilian oversight, without the hint of a trial, and well outside any country with which they are at war. (The US describes itself as a 'partner' of the civil power in Yemen.)

Both Australia and New Zealand have abolished capital punishment. Nevertheless, despite the fact that this represents the most extreme violation of a state's obligation of protection towards its own nationals, people in these countries do not seem worried about their governments' indifference to or collusion in their compatriots' deaths at the hand of a supposed ally.

The mantra of 'terrorism' and the tyranny of distance doubtless have much to do with the public's lack of concern. We have, after all, been told repeatedly that we are threatened by Al Qaeda and most of us know little of Yemen, its peoples or its complex politics intertwined with tribalism and regional power struggles.

If there is one thing, however, that the Snowden revelations have made clear it is that government surveillance powers such as wholesale data collection, call recording and metadata trawling, while defended with reference to terrorism, affect broad swathes of people who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism or (the increasingly nebulous and ill-defined) Al Qaeda.

The 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' mantra has, once again, been revealed as illusory; a lesson we should already have learned from such debacles as the persecution of Dr Haneef and the horrors of Guantanamo. Governments feel sufficiently unconstrained by public opinion that they are prepared to violate their own legal safeguards (think the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution), where these even exist.

Against this background, the fact that they are happy to kill us as well should not only raise questions about what our democracies have become but also fill us with real fear.

Justin Glyn headshotJustin Glyn SJ is a student of philosophy and theology who holds a PhD in international and administrative law.