North Africa, West Asia

US drone base in Tunisia: expanding a borderless war against terror to North Africa

By normalising the use of drones, the US might be planting a seed that people in the Arab world reject: the seed of arbitrariness.

Radidja Nemar
15 November 2016

Supporters of Pakistani religious group Jamaat-ud-Dawa protest against the U.S. drone strike in Pakistani territory which killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, Friday, May 27, 2016 in Lahore, Pakistan. Picture by K.M. Chaudary AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Despite the large criticism directed toward the unabated use of armed drones as a weapon of choice in the “global war against terror”, led by the United States, the recent revelations about the establishment of a US drone base in Tunisia show that their use is expanding.

This information comes after the announcement of the construction of a 100 million drone base in Agadez, in the centre of Niger, indicating an increase of counterterrorist drone operations in north-west Africa. Although governments in the region have publically claimed they are not hosting US bases, there remains little doubt that such bases do exist at least in Niger and Tunisia, signalling an unconstrained and dangerous expansion.

US strikes have been carried out since August 2016 in Sirte, the stronghold of ISIS in Libya, in support of local ground armed forces affiliated with the UN backed government. However, given the numerous issues posed by the use of drones in the “global war against terror”, expanding drone bases might create more problems than it could solve.

By widening the geographical scope of drone operations, the US is also expanding the uncertainty that comes with it. The global war on terrorism has already been criticised as being a war without any borders or legal safeguards and certainty. Amongst the main concerns is the lack of transparency with which the US has been carrying out these attacks as well as the lack of meaningful congressional oversight over the operations and their legality.

Despite the US’ attempt to show more transparency, by releasing data on the casualties caused by air strikes, many shortcomings remain, including the very definition of a ‘civilian’ casualty and the type of data released which fails to explain who was killed, where and why. Furthermore, sufficient data shows that the US has violated international laws in many drone strikes which are nothing less than summary executions.

It has been argued that drones facilitate the gathering of information that allows for the easy distinction between civilians and combatants, but operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen shed light on a different reality.

Information on the basis of which drone strikes are carried out is far from reliable and numerous families of victims have denounced the faulty strikes that cost the lives of innocent civilians. So far, the US has carryied out more than 300 strikes in Libya and because of the difficult access to the field, it is impossible to estimate the number of civilian casualties.

Another issue is the long term and long lasting effect of the use of drones. Research in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen has demonstrated the heavy cost of US drone policies, which, far from eradicating terrorism, are in reality fuelling violence and anti-US sentiment amongst future generations.

civilians are not only victims of drone attacks but also suffer from severe trauma caused by the constant fear of being killed without knowing why, when and where. 

Several studies – including Alkarama’s field research in Yemen following which the report “Traumatizing skies” was published – show that civilians are not only victims of drone attacks but also those who suffer from severe trauma caused by the constant fear of being killed without knowing why, when, and where.

Lastly, despite all the risks entailed by such policies, the use of drones is tempting because they are politically cheap. As the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston wrote in a 2010 report on targeted killings, if “a missile fired from a drone is no different from any other commonly used weapon […], the greater concern with drones is that because they make it easier to kill without risk to a State’s forces, policy makers and commanders will be tempted to interpret the legal limitations on who can be killed, and under what circumstances, too expansively”.

When deciding whether to resort to the use of force, the cost of drones is minimal, both politically and militarily. In reality, the cost is borne by the populations living under drones.

Going back to Tunisia, the Washington Post’s article affirms that the US base is “placing drones and small Special Operations teams at a number of facilities within striking distance of militants who could pose a threat to the west”. It seems then that the project goes beyond the removal of ISIS in Sirte. Tunisia remains a strategic point for US and western defence policies as it would extend the global network of drone bases to North Africa and allow strikes across the region.

Drones started operating from Tunisia last June and were reportedly “unarmed” and “principally being used to collect intelligence”. However, according to US military sources the drones could be armed with Tunisia’s permission. It could then serve as a departing point for aerial bombings, in support of local Libyan troops, or even to carry out “targeted killings” just like it has been done in other countries.

This leads us to the core issue of accountability. Not only that of the US, but also Arab States’ responsibility to protect their populations against violations of their right to life by foreign actors.

In Yemen, the US have argued that drone operations were – and still are – carried out legally because they had the permission of both the Saleh and the Hadi governments. However, Yemen civil society have denounced their governments’ lack of accountability and responsibility in violating their human rights by allowing drone operations. One can easily question the legitimacy of such governments as they give a “blank check” to a foreign power to use force in such an arbitrary manner without any recourse left to the people living under drones.

Interestingly enough, few days after the publication of the Washington Post article, the spokesperson for the Tunisian Ministry of Defence denied the existence of such a base, adding that “Tunisian soil has never been and never will be used to strike targets in Libya”.  Behind this denial lies the fear of a backlash from the Tunisian public which in its majority has opposed American interventionism in the region.

Ironically, in 2011, the US was under pressure to open a new drone base near Libya after the Italian government refused to give the US military permission to fly armed drones from Sicily, presumably concerned about resentment from its own public, before quietly giving its green light in 2016.

One would expect that the more democratic a country is, the more it is accountable before its citizens the government, and the less it will agree on policies violating fundamental rights, not only in their country but also in others.

Counter-terrorism and human rights are not mutually exclusive: fundamental rights – especially the right to life, liberty and security – must be at the core of every state policy, including Tunisia. By normalising the use of drones, the US might be planting a seed that people in the Arab world do not want to see growing anymore: the seed of arbitrariness.

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