Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Chinese Drones, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, and Human Rights

by Micah Zenko
January 27, 2012

Female victims of sexual violence listen to a UN humanitarian worker at the Panzi hospital in eastern Congo (Courtesy Reuters/James Akena). Female victims of sexual violence listen to a UN humanitarian worker at the Panzi hospital in eastern Congo (Courtesy Reuters/James Akena).

The plan, to be unveiled by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday and in budget documents next month, calls for a 30% increase in the U.S. fleet of armed unmanned aircraft in the coming years, defense officials said. It also foresees the deployment of more special-operations teams at a growing number of small “lily pad” bases across the globe where they can mentor local allies and launch missions.

“What we really want is to see the Army adopt the mentality of special forces,” said a military officer who advises Pentagon leaders.

“Unmanned aircraft are one of the arms that we put top importance on,” Wang Qingzong, a vice director of the general planning division of the Chinese military’s General Armaments Department, told The Asahi Shimbun. “At present, our unmanned aircraft have not reached the levels of their U.S. counterparts. So, we will make more efforts for their development.”

Nonetheless, the American public is keeping a wary eye on Iran. It is now seen as the country that The recent tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and disputes between the U.S. and Iran in the Persian Gulf have garnered a good deal of public attention. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) say they have heard a lot about this, and 41% have heard a little. The percentage naming Iran as the country posing the greatest danger to the U.S. has more than doubled to 28% from 12% a year ago, and it now ranks slightly higher than China. Of those following the Iran situation, 54% say the U.S. should take a firm stand against Iran’s actions, while 39% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran.

Now the administration is poised to take its case directly to the American people. In the coming weeks, according to four participants in the debate, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is planning to make a major address on the administration’s national-security record. Embedded in the speech will be a carefully worded but firm defense of its right to target U.S. citizens. Holder’s remarks will draw heavily on a secret Justice Department legal opinion that provided the justification for the Awlaki killing.

The calls for transparency in discussing the Awlaki strike were batted away at first. But behind the scenes, several prominent lawyers in the national-security bureaucracy began lobbying their colleagues and superiors for some degree of disclosure. Among them were Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel, and Harold Hongju Koh, the State Department legal adviser. The national-security “principals” quickly divided into camps. The CIA and other elements of the intelligence community were opposed to any disclosures that could lift the veil of secrecy from a covert program. Others, notably the Justice and State departments, argued that the killing of an American citizen without trial, while justified in rare cases, was so extraordinary it demanded a higher level of public explanation.

The source, who says he runs a network of spotters primarily in North and South Waziristan, described for the first time how U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on strikes works, with his Pakistani agents keeping close tabs on suspected militants and building a pattern of their movements and associations.

“We run a network of human intelligence sources,” he said. “Separately, we monitor their cell and satellite phones.

“Thirdly, we run joint monitoring operations with our U.S. and UK friends,” he added, noting that cooperation with British intelligence was also extensive.

Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers, using their own sources, hash out a joint “priority of targets lists” in regular face-to-face meetings, he said.

Once a target is identified and “marked,” his network coordinates with drone operators on the U.S. side. He said the United States bases drones outside Kabul, likely at Bagram airfield about 25 miles north of the capital.

From spotting to firing a missile “hardly takes about two to three hours,” he said.

The last year has seen several new and ongoing armed conflicts where sexual violence was widespread and, in some instances, may have been systematically targeted at civilians by armed forces and armed groups, in order to punish, humiliate and destroy. Mass rapes against women and girls were also witnessed. The general breakdown in law and order, the absence of justice, continuing conflict, entrenched discriminatory attitudes and practices and the prevailing culture of impunity in these situations allowed for these crimes to be committed not only with appalling consequences for the victims, but with a force that destroys the fabric of society as a whole.

In all these situations, cases of conflict-related sexual violence remain largely unreported owing to several factors, such as social stigma, fear of reprisals, insecurity, a lack of available response services and the perceived futility of reporting as a result of weak administration of justice, apathy and political pressure. In cases where survivors record their cases, they often do so in order to receive medical and psychosocial support, and with the expectation that justice may be served in the future. Cultural practices and norms also tend to take precedence over written legislation in some contexts, where the burden of responsibility and proof falls on the victim. Reparation and redress are also hardly enforced by the justice system.

(3PA: This report is unprecedented in that it “names and shames” specific countries where sexual violence is pervasive, in situations of conflict, post-conflict, and civil unrest. The list includes Columbia, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Egypt, and Syria.)

The West is still adjusting to this historic transformation. While generally opposing the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations, many of the world’s leading democracies remain reluctant partners of the protesters, worried by the consequences of entrusting these pivotal countries to their citizens.

And if Western governments have been hesitant to abandon autocratic friends, many other countries have shown outright hostility to the rebellions. Dictatorial governments have been predictably terrified by the precedent of people ousting authoritarian regimes. China went to extraordinary lengths to prevent “Jasmine rallies” inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. North Korea was so determined to keep its people in the dark about the Arab Spring that it prevented its workers in Libya from returning home. From Zimbabwe to Iran, Sudan to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Russia, Ethiopia to Vietnam, autocrats live in fear of the kind of popular power demonstrated by the Arab Spring.

They are not wrong in their apprehension. The uprisings show that the quest for rights has broad appeal, capable of uniting disparate elements of society and generating a powerful collective force for change. The old tools of repression—the censorship, the arbitrary detention, the torture, the killing—seem only to have emboldened the demonstrators once they gained confidence in their numbers. Rather than instilling fear and grudging acquiescence, the repression showed the autocrats’ true colors and highlighted the righteousness of the protesters’ cause. That sends a chilling warning to regimes long confident in the assumption that their repressive capacity would always eclipse the public’s discontent.

(3PA: Click here for the full report on the human rights situation in individual countries.)

(3PA: As U.S. defense planning “pivots” to East Asia and includes a greater focus on special operations forces, this is the recommended reading list from Major Gen. Norman Brozenick, Jr., commander,  Special Operations Command, Pacific.  You’ll note selections from a wide range of authors, such as Newt Gingrich and E.M. Forester.)

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