The Drone Wars: Modern Battlefield Tool Or International War Crime?

An MQ-9 drone taking off in Afghanistan
An MQ-9 drone taking off in Afghanistan
Jannis Brühl

NEW YORK — The U.S. government has come in for severe criticism about its use of drones, as many claim that it is violating one of the central tenets of international humanitarian law: Under no circumstances should civilians be the target of military operations. Any country that deliberately crosses that line is guilty of war crimes.

Admittedly, this principle dates back to the 20th century, a time when wars were fought between two armies on a battlefield. Back then it was clear who counted as a soldier. Anyone wearing a uniform was a legitimate target. Anyone else was not.

In modern warfare, however, there are no clearly defined battlefields. Conventional armies fight an opposition that makes bombs in the basements of residential buildings. The line between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly blurred. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross says that the U.S. is justified in attacking “irregular combatants” — farmers who strap on a rifle or students who are drawn into jihad for a few months. The important distinction is that the target must have a sustained involvement.

Washington’s approach to defining combatants has come in for heavy criticism in recent years. All men who have had contact with a known terrorist are “automatically” designated as combatants. U.S. journalist Jeremy Scahill writes in his book Dirty Wars that in certain regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. military classifies every man between 16 and 60 as a potential terrorist. “The number of civilian deaths in drone attacks is small because by definition there are very few civilians,” Scahill says.

One thing is clear, however. Technological developments that allow drones to be more precise in targeting attacks are a positive development for international law. Indeed, this fact is what American officials emphasize in defending the use of drones. But though greater precision often allows the military to differentiate more clearly between combatants and civilians, tragedies still happen.

Unintended targets

Mahama Bibi was picking okra in her family’s field when she was killed by two Hellfire missiles on Oct. 24, 2012. Her three grandchildren were with her as she was torn apart by an American drone attack. Nabeela, 8, and Asma, 7, were also injured. Only Naeema, 5, was physically unharmed, but all three were traumatized. Another grandchild was wounded by a second attack that followed minutes later.

The death of the 68-year-old grandmother is just one of the shocking cases of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes described in Amnesty International’s recent report “Will I be next?” The human rights organization claims that there are no terrorists in Mahama Bibi’s family. Her husband used to be a teacher and three of her sons are also teachers. “We are normal people,” says one son, Rafeequl Bibi.

According to Amnesty’s research, the Pakistani secret service was convinced that a Taliban fighter had been glimpsed in a street near Bibi’s house shortly before the attack. Even if this was the case, the nearest street is more than 280 meters away from the family’s home.

For its report, Amnesty researched 45 drone attacks that took place between January 2012 and August 2013 in the mountainous region of North Waziristan. It cites another example from July 2012, when 18 civilians in Zowi Sigdi came under attack from the skies as they sat down to eat together. Amnesty claims that although they “represented no threat,” the official U.S. report classified them as combatants.

Amnesty International estimates that there have been between 400 and 900 Pakistani civilians killed in drone attacks since 2004, while at least 600 civilians have been “seriously wounded.” UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson gives the number of victims in Pakistan alone as at least 2,200. Amnesty’s report criticizes Pakistan’s government for its “silent support” of the U.S. drone program but also blames Australia, the UK and Germany for making the attacks possible.

On a recent visit to Washington, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif called for an end to drone strikes, a subject the UN General Assembly has also debated. Though President Barack Obama has defended them, there’s no doubt that the use of drones raises uncomfortable questions for a democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!