Amnesty International: US may be guilty of war crimes in Pakistan

Several reports released this week are adding pressure on the US to disclose information about its deadly drone programme and civilian casualties.

A report released by Amnesty International today has condemned the US’s secrecy surrounding its drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and says that the US could be guilty of violating international law and committing war crimes. It cites NGO and Pakistani government sources claiming that the US launched between 330 and 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013, killing between 400 and 900 civilians and injuring 600. 

The report calls on the US to meet its obligations under international law by carrying out full and independent inquiries into the killing of civilians documented in Amnesty’s report. More specifically it accused the US of the arbitrary deprivation of life, and said that to avoid breaking international law the US authorities need to show that they only use deadly force to protect life, in situations where the use of force is proportionate, and where non-lethal methods are not possible. 

Amnesty’s efforts to investigate drone strikes placed both their own researchers and those they were interviewing at risk, and they were only able to travel to South Waziristan, not to North Waziristan, where many attacks have taken place. There was also a fear that local people would be coerced into giving inaccurate information, or even that they could be killed for disclosing details of drone attacks.

This struggle to access information about the human cost of drones highlights how damaging the US’s secrecy is, and how voiceless the civilians caught up in a battle between militant groups, the Pakistani government and international forces, are. Amnesty’s interviews revealed the human cost of US drone programmes: the families grieving relatives, or suffering the loss of their main breadwinner, and the civilians too scared to pray in mosques or gather in large groups for fear of drone attacks. In this political climate, few civilians are able to seek justice or compensation.

One problem flagged up in the report is the US’s repeated use of “signature strikes”, when the identities of individuals or groups are not known but their activities appear to fit a pattern deemed suspicious. It also needs to justify its attacks on those who may be members of armed groups but are not participating in armed conflicts, and its “follow-up strikes” that have killed rescue workers.

The Amnesty Report has been published amid growing pressure on the US to justify its position. Today, Human Rights Watch has also published a report on drone strikes in Yemen, which it argues violate international law. Both reports follow closely on the publication of a report by the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, who called on the US to declassify its information on drone strikes.

Interestingly, the Economist this week has published an article suggesting that some civilians in South Waziristan support drone strikes in their region, arguing that they are effective at killing militants, and are preferable to artillery attacks by Pakistan’s military. This doesn’t, however, mean that there is any less need for increased openness from the US.

If the US is right and drone strikes are the least bad way of containing militant operations in lawless parts of the world, it needs to start producing evidence that this is true. Supporters of drone attacks claim that drones are able to carry out better surveillance, and are more accurate than conventional weaponry, but this is no use if they are deployed indiscriminately against people who are engaging in so-called suspicious behaviour – like rescuing their friends from the rubble of previous attacks. But how many more reports will have to be published before the US starts accepting legal responsibility for its secretive and deadly strikes? 
 

A Raven surveillance drone from Marine base perimeter on March 21, 2009 near the remote village of Baqwa, Afghanistan.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.