This article was first published by The Age.
Would you be comfortable if Australian security personnel were enabling the killing of Australian citizens who had not been charged with crimes, who had not faced a trial and who were in a country that Australia was not at war with?
These are the questions at the heart of a long overdue debate, because Australian security personnel are reportedly doing exactly that.
Last month it was reported that two Australian citizens, Christopher Havard and Muslim bin John had been killed by a United States drone strike in Yemen – a country with whom neither the USA nor Australia claims to be at war. Neither man had been charged with any crime.
The Australian government denies any involvement in or prior awareness of the operation. However, mounting evidence suggests that the joint Australian-American defence facility at Pine Gap outside Alice Springs is intimately involved in the US’s drone strikes. Last week American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill stated that he has access to top-secret documents, some obtained through leaks by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, that prove this.
Scahill said the documents show that the Pine Gap facility, along with similar facilities in Canada, UK and New Zealand, provide critical information to the US ''that can be used to track and kill individuals around the world''. According to Scahill, the Australian government is fully aware of the extent of the US assassination program.
Personnel at Pine Gap do not fire the drones’ weapons, but they show drone operators where to point their barrels.
Since 2001, thousands of people have been killed in covert US drone strikes in places like Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. The strikes are conducted secretly by the CIA or the US military’s joint special operations command.
Many people are concerned that there are a disproportionate number of civilians among the dead and that there is no mechanism by which to investigate and hold accountable the US for those deaths. The UN is currently investigating around 30 drone strikes to assess whether those incidents caused excessive civilian casualties.
It is possible that civilian deaths from drone strikes could constitute war crimes and serious human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killing. If the allegations about Pine Gap are true, then Australian officials who provide information upon which drone strikes are based could be complicit in any abuses committed by the Americans.
Civilian harm and legal risks for Australian personnel are only part of the problem. The current secret, unregulated drone war sets other dangerous precedents.
In September 2013 the UN expert on extra-judicial killing warned that drones are increasingly accessible and affordable and undermine global stability. It won’t be long before drones are in the hands of states that Australia does not consider to be allies. It’s not in our security interest for drones to be used outside of the well-established principles of international law.
Drones are not just undermining a rules-based international order, they are fuelling resentment of Australia and its allies. In March 2013, Yemeni youth activist Farea Al-Muslimi testified before US congress about the growing anger and resentment in Yemen following US drone attacks there. Al-Muslimi explained ''what the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America''.
The Australian public deserves to know if we are involved in the US drone program and if so, we have a right to an explanation of the legal and policy basis on which Australia is involved.
While some government information may need to be withheld for national security reasons, the government can safely provide answers to some basic questions. Is Australia at war with any state or armed group? Is Pine Gap’s intelligence used to target and kill people overseas? If so, what is the legal justification for our involvement? Have Australian personnel at Pine Gap been advised as to any risk they face of complicity in war crimes or other violations of Australian or international law?
Australia opposes the death penalty at home and abroad, yet our government has shown little regard for the deaths of its own citizens without trial.
Accordingly, the Human Rights Law Centre has asked the UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism to investigate the legality of the deaths of the two Australians.
While our concern extends to all civilians killed by drone strikes and to the responsibility that our government might bear in those deaths, it is unacceptable that our government has failed to provide any public explanation as to why the US killed two of our citizens. Their families have a right to know what happened.
It’s high time Australia began the conversation about our involvement in the US’s secret and dirty wars.
Emily Howie is director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre.