For PBS: The strange politics of human rights conferences

Over the weekend, I attended the International Forum and Film Festival for Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva, Switzerland. They invited me todiscuss the implications of a recent documentary by Dutch filmmaker Vincent Verweij called “Attack of the Drones,” which premiered last year.

The documentary raises many important questions about the use of this weapons platform in modern warfare. But it is also constrained by some misleading statements about the weapons system and how it is used. In thediscussion afterward,  a curious political environment surrounding the discourse of human rights was revealed.

Reality seems to be less of a concern than outrage. For example, a common refrain in the documentary is that drones are cheap to operate; they are not. While older drones like the MQ-1 Predator are relatively cheap to buy and on about equal footing with piloted airplanes, the newer drone models are actually shockingly expensive.

According to the DOD’s Selected Acquisition Report, the MQ-1C Grey Eagle, a more modern drone than the old MQ-1, is actually more expensive to buy and to operate than an F-16 Falcon. Moreover, while it costs less to purchase than an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter it actually requires more people and logistics to operate. In other words, the MQ-1C is more expensive overall than the F-35, which according to a GAO report last year was approaching $400 billion in costs.

In recent off-the-record conversations I’ve had with several U.S. drone manufacturers, both executives and senior engineers have worried that newer drones are so prohibitively expensive that the government might halt development midway through a design cycle, costing the industry billions of dollars in wasted effort.

Equally misleading is how the governments in question – primarily America and Pakistan – talk about them. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that two widely reported drone strikes in Pakistan were actuallynothing of the sort: one was an air strike by the Pakistani military and the other might even have been two Taliban factions fighting each other.

The original, incorrect reports of drone strikes were sourced to Pakistani military and intelligence officials. Yet reporting for other strikes, also sourced to these same Pakistani officials, are considered reliable. The U.S. government has also made its own questionable claims about drone strikes. The reliance on such sources for news defies logic, yet it is a persistent feature of civilian-oriented critiques of the program.

In Geneva, the questions from the audience afterward reflected some of this misleading debate. One asked me, directly, why the U.S. violates sovereignty and breaks the law. Explaining that it’s not a violation of sovereignty if the host government invites you, and it’s not illegal if the law allows for strikes, merited eerie silence (other panelists expressing outrage about the drone program received loud applause).

It’s a frustrating conundrum; the way drones are used raises far too many questions  (of morality and efficacy), yet the way they’re criticized relies on misleading claims and lots of hype.

Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala, a young Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban, spoke at the opening ceremony. While Ziauddin spoke eloquently of his own government’s complicity in Pakistan’s militancy, many attendees spoke instead of America’s role in creating it to begin with.

A similar mindset afflicted the panel on Afghanistan, where outrage overpowered reason. Jawed Taiman’s documentary about Afghans’ views of the future was done very well, but the audience was raucous and bordered at times on hostile. Panelists and audience members alike blamed everything on America, on Pakistan, or on the military. Most said that Afghanistan would be just fine once the foreigners leave – a conclusion many Afghans don’t share.

None of these critiques come from a bad place. The U.S. in particular has made a lot of mistakes, and far too many innocent people have been killed as a result of it. America, however, is not the primary cause of the many bad things happening around the world.

This inability to grapple with the genuine complexity of why bad things happen and then what to do about them is baffling. It’s relatively easy to sit in a movie theater and yell “No!” Effectively altering the world – the really difficult work of implementing a solution apart from a new slogan – is incredibly difficult.

A film festival is not the place for detailed discussion of how policies can be made more humane, more equitable, or fairer. But sometimes, it would be nice to at least acknowledge that complexity. Otherwise, it feels like we’re all just crossing our arms and not really solving anything.

This was originally published at PBS.

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