Public health professionals must demand an end to the use of armed drones

On January 13, 2017, a family consisting of a husband, wife and three young children rushed from one apartment building to another east of Mosul, Iraq. They sought refuge as a battle between Islamic State (also known as Daesh) and US-backed forces swirled around them. The family was crammed into an abandoned school surrounded by other civilians when a US drone struck and destroyed the structure. The father and one of his sons narrowly escaped. The tragic fate of his wife and other children would not be confirmed until months later, when he saw their bodies being pulled from the rubble.

This account was just one of many described in a recent publication Pentagon reports documenting numerous civilian casualties resulting from US airstrikes and drones. As the report shows, the heavy toll that armed drones take on civilian populations has been largely overlooked by the US government. What reports like this make clear, however, is that armed drones are becoming a serious threat to public health.

The use of armed drones for targeted assassinations is not new, nor is the lack of government transparency. The US government has steadily increased deadly covert drone operations since 2008, and almost everything we know about the program comes from whistleblowers and leakers. Details regarding the number of civilians killed and the scale of the program are difficult to determine, but stories like the one above demonstrate the disregard for human life that results from the use of armed drones.

Like all human rights abuses, the public health community, of which I am a part, has an obligation to condemn the use of armed drones and demand an end to these targeted killings. If the goal of the public health sector – which includes health practitioners, researchers, academics and policy makers – is, as the American Public Health Association (APHA) website states, “to to prevent people from getting sick or injured,” then it is certainly more than appropriate to lend an authoritative voice against armed drones.

American citizens bear a special responsibility. Unlike other causes of death or disability, armed drones are built, maintained and funded by our tax dollars. It is our elected officials who put them into action. Our complicity is unacceptable.

APHA made a passionate case for the prevention of armed conflict from a public health perspective. However, not much has been written specifically regarding drones. This omission is significant considering how our political leaders – even those often seen as advocates of “peace” – view the use of armed drones. For example, former Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Barack Obama saw drone strikes as an alternative to the cruder “dumb wars” he railed against during his campaign. This perspective has led to a huge program extension under his administration with over 500 strikes, including one that explicitly targeted and executed a 16-year-old boy. Political leaders like Obama see drones as an acceptable “middle ground” that allows the application of American force without, at least ostensibly, the traditional guarantee of American casualties or civilian deaths.

Deaths related to drone strikes are not the only consequence felt by civilians. A researcher Explain how children living in an area like northern Pakistan – with a lot of US drone activity – “go hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone”, which often circles overhead 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The psychiatric toll that this constant threat of violence takes on children is hard to imagine.

Despite the common refrain from US government officials that armed drones offer an extremely “precise” method of targeting, the truth is that civilian casualties from armed drone attacks are a Frequent occurrence. The indiscriminate nature of armed drone attacks is reminiscent of a much older but equally brutal weapon: landmines. Over the past decades, human rights organizations, academics and activists have worked tirelessly to show the world that landmines maim and kill civilian populations and therefore their use should be banned. The public health community has played a central role in this movement, for example by conducting research that backs up the movement’s claims with evidence. The same tact should be taken with armed drones. Public health researchers should work with activists and human rights experts to form a coalition that demands an end to the use of armed drones.

Professional societies such as APHA could provide guidance highlighting the role of public health in ending the use of armed drones. This could take the form of a bold policy statement similar to the one APHA released in 2009 regarding the role of public health in prevention of armed conflict.

With political leaders from both major American parties viewing drones as a practical workaround to the traditional pitfalls of the American use of force, it is imperative that the public health community remind the world that these weapons have tragic consequences. It is our responsibility to lend our voice, our research skills and our leading positions to end the use of armed drones and end the pain and suffering they cause.

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