Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: US kills young Kiwi and Govt does diddly-squat

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A man waves to a passing car during an anti-drones protest at the Iowa Air National Guard base. Photo/ AP
A man waves to a passing car during an anti-drones protest at the Iowa Air National Guard base. Photo/ AP

In October 2010, a group of suspected Islamist radicals were killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Among them was a German citizen, Bunyamin E. Not surprisingly, the incident "sparked serious political debate" in Germany, reported Der Spiegel. Upon learning that Berlin agencies had provided information that led to his targeting, the German interior ministry imposed stricter rules on intelligence sharing with the US. The federal prosecutor ultimately launched an inquiry into the legality of the operation.

When a New Zealand citizen was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, having reportedly been travelling in a convoy including a senior figure of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group, the incident sparked nothing at all. Daryl Jones (or "Muslim Bin John"), a dual NZ-Australian citizen, and Australian Adam Harvard lost their lives with at least three others in Hadramout province, Yemen, on November 19, 2013 - six months ago on Monday. The response, after it came to light through Australian press reports? A big old shrug.

Jones was a "known terrorist". The men were "al-Qaeda foot soldiers". They were not themselves the targets, but "may have been in the car and may have been collateral damage", a "senior counter-terrorism source", told the Australian.

Prime Minister John Key displayed a staggering lack of curiosity about the death of a citizen abroad. "I was advised it was highly likely he was killed in the latter part, I think, of 2013 ... My intelligence agencies informed me. I don't know where they got the information from."

And apart from a refusal to say whether any other New Zealand citizens had been killed in similar extra-judicial killings that's been about it. The line to accompany the shrug is essentially this: Jones went off to Yemen and got involved with terrorists, what did he expect? On the face of it, that refrain - echoed by the Labour Party and questioned only by the Green Party - is persuasive. Stupid guy. Bad guy. Dead guy. Don't let's worry our pretty little heads about it any more.

Except that there has been no evidence offered in support. A twentysomething New Zealander has been delivered a death sentence without trial.

Barack Obama asserts that "before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured". Independent analysis suggests this has been far from the pattern. A Human Rights Watch study published in October last year examined six US "targeted killings" in Yemen, one from 2009 and five from 2012-2013. Together the strikes "killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians". Two attacks "killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war". The London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism estimates at least 273 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have been killed in drone strikes during Obama's presidency.

In its big public shrug over Jones' death, the New Zealand Government delivers clear tacit approval to a campaign of assassinations that remains deeply murky under international law. And it may be more than a matter of principle. According to Professor Richard Jackson of Otago University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, our acquiescence "ends up, paradoxically, making us more of a [terrorist] target".

One former drone operator has told the US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, the author of the book Dirty Wars (who appears at the Auckland Writers Festival tomorrow), that targets are routinely identified "based on controversial metadata analysis and cellphone tracking technologies". As documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published this week emphasise, New Zealand is a key player in the US-led information-sharing programmes that generate this sort of information. There is reason to suspect that intelligence gathered by New Zealand's agencies is used to identify drone strike targets.

And underlying all of this is the most terrifying testimony of all: that these supposedly precise "targeted killings" are counterproductive. What if this mode of warfare is in fact fomenting hatred and radicalisation?

"The US is losing the battle for hearts and minds in Yemen," says Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch. Even General Stanley McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan, has warned of the "resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... They are hated on a visceral level".

Scahill, who has visited Yemen numerous times to speak to the people affected, puts it like this: "We are encouraging a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are making more new enemies than we are killing actual terrorists."

Questions about New Zealand's response to the killing of a citizen in a drone strike deserve more than a shrug, let alone the laziest of hawkish rhetorical squawks: you're-with-us-or-against-us. When I raised concerns like those above on Twitter last month, one backbench Government MP swiftly branded me a "classic apologist for al-Qaeda".

New Zealand's campaign material for a seat on the UN Security Council boasts of "a consistent and independent foreign policy" and promises to "work to ensure that all states are heard and respected, regardless of size or allegiances". A nice idea. The fallout from the death of Daryl Jones, however, suggests something closer to a willing and servile poodle.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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