Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in People’s Dispatch and has been lightly edited.
On Tuesday, February 15, United Nations officials issued a stark warning that incessant war in Yemen and a funding shortage for various aid programs could drastically exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis in the country. UN special envoy Hans Grundberg and UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, while speaking at the UN Security Council (UNSC), said 8 million Yemenis are at imminent risk of being cut off from vital humanitarian aid in March if the international community fails to secure the required funds for the aid programs to continue. Funding for the aid programs in Yemen has been steadily decreasing, with the UN humanitarian office stating that for the year 2021, its humanitarian plan was only able to secure USD $2.27 billion out of the required USD $3.85 billion, the lowest funding level since 2015.
The two UN officials also expressed alarm at the rapid escalation in the war in Yemen, ongoing since 2014. They highlighted the drastic rise in civilian casualties over the last few months and the growth in new combat areas in the country, which is likely to add to the death toll and suffering of the civilian population. Since the war erupted following the Houthi movement’s routing of the Western-backed government from most of north Yemen—including the capital, Sanaa—followed by the intervention of the Saudi-led alliance, over 377,000 people have been killed, as per the latest UN estimates. Tens of millions of Yemenis have also been internally displaced, with over 24 million—approximately 80 percent of the total population of 30 million—dependent on international humanitarian aid for their survival.
Grundberg was quoted by news outlets as telling the UNSC that a series of air bombings by the Saudi-led military coalition targeting a detention facility in Yemen last month was the “worst civilian casualty incident in three years.” He also noted an increase in such devastating air bombing campaigns by the coalition that target even civilian areas in Sanaa and the strategically important port city of Hodeidah. Over 650 civilians were either killed or injured by air raids, shelling, small arms fire and other forms of violence in January, in what officials claimed was “by far the highest toll in at least three years.”
Griffiths said that “the war is finding people in their homes, schools, mosques, hospitals and other places where civilians should be protected.” According to the officials, the retaliatory attacks by Houthis in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) also “indicate how this conflict risks spiraling out of control unless serious efforts are urgently made by the Yemeni parties, the region and the international community to end the conflict.” Griffiths told the UNSC that he is continuously trying to mediate between the warring parties to agree to de-escalate the conflict, with more consultations to start next week aimed at achieving a mutual ceasefire.
Previous funding cuts have already forced the UN World Food Program to reduce the amount of rations supplied to 8 million Yemenis in December last year. If the funding requirement is not met, the rations for millions of Yemenis could stop completely and around 3.6 million people will be at risk of not having access to safe drinking water and several other critical social programs on tackling gender-based violence, reproductive health, and other such issues. The UN may also have to cancel most of its humanitarian flights in Yemen in March due to the funding shortage. News reports state that while the UN has not yet released its humanitarian plan for Yemen for 2022, Sweden and Switzerland are poised to co-host a pledging event on March 16.
At the High Line, a popular tourist attraction in New York City, visitors to the West side of Lower Manhattan ascend above street level to what was once an elevated freight train line and is now a tranquil and architecturally intriguing promenade. Here walkers enjoy a park-like openness; with fellow strollers they experience urban beauty, art and the wonder of comradeship.
In late May, a Predator drone replica, appearing suddenly above the High Line promenade at 30th Street, might seem to scrutinize people below. The “gaze” of the sleek, white sculpture by Sam Durant, called “Untitled, (drone),” in the shape of the U.S. military’s Predator killer drone, will sweep unpredictably over the people below, rotating atop its 25-foot-high steel pole, its direction guided by the wind.
Unlike the real Predator, it won’t carry two Hellfire missiles and a surveillance camera. The drone’s death-delivering features are omitted from Durant’s sculpture. Nevertheless, he hopes it will generate discussion.
“Untitled (drone)” is meant to animate questions “about the use of drones, surveillance, and targeted killings in places far and near,” said Durant in a statement “and whether as a society we agree with and want to continue these practices.”
Durant regards art as a place for exploring possibilities and alternatives.
In 2007, a similar desire to raise questions about remote killing motivated New York artist, Wafaa Bilal, now a professor at NYU’s Tisch Gallery, to lock himself in a cubicle where, for a month, and at any hour of the day, he could be remotely targeted by a paint-ball gun blast. Anyone on the internet who chose to could shoot at him.
He was shot at more than 60,000 times by people from 128 different countries. Bilal called the project “Domestic Tension.” In a resulting book, Shoot an Iraqi: Art Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Bilal and co-author Kary Lydersen chronicled the remarkable outcome of the “Domestic Tension” project.
Along with descriptions of constant paint-ball attacks against Bilal, they wrote of the internet participants who instead wrestled with the controls to keep Bilal from being shot. And they described the death of Bilal’s brother, Hajj, who was killed by a U.S. air to ground missile killed Hajj in 2004.
Grappling with the terrible vulnerability to sudden death felt by people all across Iraq, Bilal, who grew up in Iraq, with this exhibit chose to partly experience the pervasive fear of being suddenly, and without warning, attacked remotely. He made himself vulnerable to people who might wish him harm.
Three years later, in June of 2010, Bilal developed the “And Counting” art work in which a tattoo artist inked the names of Iraq’s major cities on Bilal’s back. The tattoo artist then used his needle to place “dots of ink, thousands and thousands of them — each representing a casualty of the Iraq war. The dots are tattooed near the city where the person died: red ink for the American soldiers, ultraviolet ink for the Iraqi civilians, invisible unless seen under black light.”
Bilal, Durant and other artists who help us think about U.S. colonial warfare against the people of Iraq and other nations should surely be thanked. It’s helpful to compare Bilal’s and Durant’s projects.
The pristine, unsullied drone may be an apt metaphor for twenty-first-century U.S. warfare which can be entirely remote. Before driving home to dinner with their own loved ones, soldiers on another side of the world can kill suspected militants miles from any battlefield. The people assassinated by drone attacks may themselves be driving along a road, possibly headed toward their family homes.
U.S. technicians analyze miles of surveillance footage from drone cameras, but such surveillance doesn’t disclose information about the people a drone operator targets.
In fact, as Andrew Cockburn wrote in the London Review of Books: “the laws of physics impose inherent restrictions of picture quality from distant drones that no amount of money can overcome. Unless pictured from low altitude and in clear weather, individuals appear as dots, cars as blurry blobs.”
On the other hand, Bilal’s exploration is deeply personal, connoting the anguish of victims. Bilal took great pains, including the pain of tattooing, to name the people whose dots appear on his back, people who had been killed.
Contemplating “Untitled (drone),” it’s unsettling to recall that no one in the U.S. can name the thirty Afghan laborers killed by a U.S. drone in 2019. A U.S. drone operator fired a missile into an encampment of migrant workers resting after a day of harvesting pine nuts in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. An additional 40 people were injured. To U.S. drone pilots, such victims may appear only as dots.
In many war zones, incredibly brave human rights documentarians risk their lives to record the testimonies of people suffering war-related human rights violations, including drone attacks striking civilians. Mwatana for Human Rights, based in Yemen, researches human rights abuses committed by all sides to the war in Yemen. In their report, Death Falling from the Sky, Civilian Harm from the United States’ Use of Lethal Force in Yemen, they examine 12 U.S. aerial attacks in Yemen, 10 of them U.S. drone strikes, between 2017 and 2019.
They report at least 38 Yemeni civilians—nineteen men, thirteen children, and six women—were killed and seven others were injured in the attacks.
From the report, we learn of important roles the slain victims played as family and community members. We read of families bereft of income after the killing of wage earners, including beekeepers, fishers, laborers and drivers. Students described one of the men killed as a beloved teacher. Also among the dead were university students and housewives. Loved ones who mourn the deaths of those killed still fear hearing the hum of a drone.
Now it’s clear that the Houthis in Yemen have been able to use 3-D models to create their own drones which they have fired across a border, hitting targets in Saudi Arabia. This kind of proliferation has been entirely predictable.
The U.S. recently announced plans to sell the United Arab Emirates fifty F-35 fighter jets, eighteen Reaper drones, and various missiles, bombs and munitions. The UAE has used its weapons against its own people and has run ghastly clandestine prisons in Yemen where people are tortured and broken as human beings, a fate awaiting any Yemeni critic of their power.
The installation of a drone overlooking people in Manhattan can bring them into the larger discussion.
Outside of many military bases safely within the U.S. – from which drones are piloted to deal death over Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and other lands, activists have repeatedly staged artistic events. In 2011, at Hancock Field in Syracuse, thirty-eight activists were arrested for a “die-in” during which they simply lay down, at the gate, covering themselves with bloodied sheets.
The title of Sam Durant’s sculpture – “Untitled (drone)” – means that in a sense it is officially nameless, like so many of the victims of the U.S. Predator drones it is designed to resemble.
People in many parts of the world can’t speak up. Comparatively, we don’t face torture or death for protesting. We can tell the stories of the people being killed now by our drones, or watching the skies in terror of them.
We should tell those stories, those realities, to our elected representatives, to faith-based communities, to academics, to media and to our family and friends. And if you know anyone in New York City, please tell them to be on the lookout for a Predator drone in lower Manhattan. This pretend drone could help us grapple with reality and accelerate an international push to ban killer drones.
Kathy Kelly (Kathy.firstname.lastname@example.org) is a peace activist and author working to end U.S. military and economic wars. At times, her activism has led her to war zones and prisons.
This week, Toward Freedom’s Board of Directors bids farewell to guest editor Charlotte Dennett, welcomes Toward Freedom’s new editor, Julie Varughese, and extends a heartfelt thanks to Sam Mayfield who stepped down as President of Toward Freedom’s Board of Directors in December, 2020.
Charlotte Dennett stepped in as Toward Freedom’s guest editor last October. Her decades-long experience as a scholar, author and activist allowed Charlotte to seamlessly step into the position serving Toward Freedom’s mission, “to publish international reporting and incisive analysis that exposes government and corporate abuses of power, while supporting movements for universal peace, justice, freedom, the environment, and human rights.”
Charlotte contributed not only her editorial and writing skills, but also her great depth of geopolitical knowledge, as well as her enthusiasm for working with other writers. She went above and beyond the call of duty to mentor new writers, guiding them through the editing process, which resulted in the publication of many articles about places and issues not covered by any other English-language media. You can read Charlotte’s reflections about her time as guest editor here. Thank you, Charlotte!
Earlier this month, Julie Varughese came on board as Toward Freedom’s new editor. Julie comes to us having worked as a newspaper reporter, video producer and communications professional in a variety of settings. She has been working with the Black Alliance for Peace since its inception, supporting their impressive growth over the past four years. Julie’s strong writing, editing, video, graphics and social media skills will be a boon to Toward Freedom as we expand and grow to serve a more diverse audience and cover different parts of the world. This past week, Julie edited and published stories on Colombia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Palestine, and drones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Please drop her a line at email@example.com with any comments or suggestions. Welcome, Julie!
Sam Mayfield led the organization during a period of transition in our operations, finances, and governance, with a clear vision and commitment to high-quality reporting and analysis of global events and grassroots movements from an anti-imperialist perspective. Her principled leadership, strong work ethic, and experience as a reporter and filmmaker were invaluable as we navigated multiple challenges over the past several years. Thank you, Sam!
Check out towardfreedom.org for all the latest, and expect to see increased presence of Toward Freedom stories on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in the coming weeks.
Thanks to you Toward Freedom readers for your continued support!
On behalf of the Toward Freedom Board of Directors,
Record-breaking heat waves and economic hits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted governments in the United States and the United Kingdom to consider enacting a Green New Deal (GND). But how might these GNDs play out? Will they curb emissions? More importantly, will they curb emissions while upholding the principles of social justice and equity?
In May 2021, Leon Sealey-Huggins, assistant professor in the global sustainable development division at the University of Warwick, wrote a detailed critique of GNDs, including those adopted by the U.S. Democrats and the U.K. Conservatives. Titled, “‘Deal or No Deal?’ Exploring the Potential, Limits and Potential Limits of Green New Deals,” the report calls for closer scrutiny. “GNDs that fail to address the fundamental questions of power, ownership and control will also fail to adequately ameliorate the injustices of climate breakdown,” the report stated.
GNDs also fail to address the need for drastic emissions reductions.
“Zero by 2050 is a global average target, and to be compatible with the principles of equity and justice under the Paris Agreement, rich nations have a responsibility to reduce emissions much more quickly than this, reaching zero by around 2030,” Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist in Eswatini, the southern African country formerly known as Swaziland, told Toward Freedom. Hickel serves on the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe and on the Harvard-Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice. Hickel said GNDs need to include clear and explicit language on scaling down fossil fuels to zero, with binding annual targets.
“Right now, this language is totally absent,” he added.
Current Green New Deals Will Perpetuate Injustice
Max Ajl, an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment, said Sealey-Huggins’ critique is spot on. Ajl explained GNDs aim at “recolonizing the Third World through monocrop tree plantations, converting the Third World into biofuel plantations and other coercive mechanisms, rather than figuring out ways to reconstruct the United States and the European Union, so they remain socially complex, modern and industrial, but become sustainable, egalitarian and non-imperialist societies.” (“Third World” originally referred to developing states that did not align with the United States nor with the former Soviet Union. In this context, it refers to countries in the global South.) Ajl also is author of the recent book, A People’s Green New Deal.
Others, too, have expressed similar fears about further colonialism via GNDs. For instance, in a op-ed for Al Jazeera, Myriam Douo, a steering group member of Equinox
Initiative For Racial Justice, writes that by employing corporate solutions for climate change, the “EU’s Green Deal will entrench further European neocolonial practices.” Douo notes demand for metals such as nickel, cobalt and lithium has been driving labor abuses and environmental destruction. Such is the case in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in lithium mines of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
The transition to clean energy requires metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc for battery technology in electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines. A March 2021 report identified that about half the global supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); over 80 percent of the global supply of lithium comes from Australia, Chile and Argentina; and 60 percent of the global supply of manganese comes from South Africa, China and Australia.
Between 2010 and 2020, a total of 276 allegations of human-rights abuses were identified in connection with companies that hold a majority-market share in clean energy minerals like cobalt, lithium and manganese, according to the Transition Minerals Tracker report released in February 2021.
Community impacts in the areas of health, violence and Indigenous rights constitute the biggest chunk of human-rights violations, while environmental impacts rank second. Pays to note that many of the countries that hold vast reserves of such minerals are already vulnerable—whether in terms of climate impacts or quality of human life in general.
Space for Improvement
Hickel noted that GNDs, as drafted, focus on emissions to the exclusion of resource use.
“We are overshooting a number of other planetary boundaries, which is being driven by excess resource use,” Hickel said. “Rich nations are overwhelmingly responsible for this problem, with per capita resource use vastly in excess of sustainable levels. The GNDs need to incorporate binding targets to reduce resource use.”
Ajl agreed. “The existing GNDs, including those from most progressives, are oriented to maintaining private control over the means of production, to ignoring climate debt, and to using materials-intensive technologies to solve what are often social more than technical problems,” Ajl said.
In the critique, Sealey-Huggins references versions of the GND Resolution, which the Biden administration might adopt. The resolution first was introduced in 2019 by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-OR), both a part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It cites itself as the first comprehensive plan in the United States that aims to tackle the scale of the climate crisis by recognizing deep-rooted economic inequalities. In April 2021, they re-introduced the legislation after it failed to advance in the Senate in 2019.
The GND resolution aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers. More specifically, it calls for actions like overhauling the transportation system, supporting family farming and investing in sustainable farming and land-use practices that increase soil health and restoring natural ecosystems. Biden’s plan for clean energy and environmental justice references the GND as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”
But according to Ajl, even the original GND legislation progressives are promoting has its share of problems because it doesn’t do enough to fundamentally transform the system.
Sealey-Huggins too pointed out GNDs in the United States and the United Kingdom show a preference for highly technical, emissions-focused policies. And that by doing so, fail to democratize ownership and control via tools like social organization, redistribution and repair. He went even further to criticize roles adopted by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has conditioned aid on cuts to welfare services.
Sealey-Huggins suggests “reparative justice” as a path forward. That would involve global redistribution of power, wealth and resources; building grassroots power; and recognizing “shared goals” with movements led by the world’s Indigenous, African and oppressed peoples.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bangalore, India.