What the 70th Anniversary of the D-day Landings Reminds us of

Melissa Parke
June 05, 2014

Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, a massive and decisive military operation in a war that shaped the world as we know it today. Seventy years on, we find ourselves participants in another kind of conflict, a form of asymmetric warfare that commenced with the US and British conventional airstrikes in Afghanistan, a month after the 9/11 attacks in the USA, and continues now. This 'war on terror' has lasted at least twice as long as World War II and has involved the evolution of new tactics and high-tech weapons, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. Drones enable a greatly expanded scope for military intervention. They range far from the operational theatres where our own military forces are engaged, loitering above places with names few of us would recognise in countries only marginally familiar. They gather intelligence, acquire targets and sometimes launch attacks to kill people who we are told pose a threat to us.

On 16 April, The Australian reported the death of two Australians in a drone attack in Yemen last November. The article said in part:

It is understood US authorities notified Australian officials about the possibility Australian citizens might have been 'collateral damage' in the strike, part of an ongoing campaign by the US and Yemeni governments to wipe out AQAP militants ... The two men were not the intended targets of the attack, which killed three other militants.

Notwithstanding the hesitant language used, it seems clear from this and other reports that a death sentence has been pronounced and carried out from a drone controlled by people we cannot know who are not accountable to any legal process we would recognise and whose decisions we are being asked to accept on trust after the fact. And this occurred in a country with which we are not at war and which is relatively far from any area where our military forces are directly engaged.

Can such strikes be reasonably considered acts of war or are they more properly to be regarded as instances of extrajudicial killings or war crimes? In this case, two Australians lost their lives in Yemen, with no independent examination of whether the targeted killing in which they were reportedly collateral damage was legal under international law. They were killed by remote control in the course of a drone attack that was formulated, authorised and implemented without transparent process, and in which Australia may have played some role. Human Rights Watch has reported allegations that Pine Gap has been used to locate and track suspects, who are then killed in US drone strikes.

In an October 2013 report into drone strikes in Pakistan, Amnesty International noted 'apart from Pakistan, other states, including Australia, Germany and the UK, appear to be providing intelligence and other assistance to the USA in carrying out drone strikes'. If this is true, what does the Attorney-General say is the legal basis for our involvement? Needless to say, targeted killing by drones is conduct that threatens to tear up the principles on which our system of justice and the international rule of law is based.

In the book Dirty wars: the world is a battlefield by Jeremy Scahill, the author writes:

The days of fighting uniformed enemies and national militaries according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions were over. 'The world is a battlefield' was the mantra repeated by neoconservatives in the US national security apparatus ... But terrorists would not be their only target. The two-hundred-year-old democratic system of checks and balances was firmly in their crosshairs.

In April this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, called upon 'States that use remotely piloted aircraft for lethal counterterrorism operations and all states on whose territory such operations occur, to clarify their position on the legal and factual issues raised.' He also called for states 'to make public the results of all fact-finding investigations into alleged civilian casualties resulting from such operations; and to release their own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft'.

Further concern has been expressed about rapid technological progress towards the development of fully autonomous weapons—that is, weapons that can operate without any human input or interaction or with only minimal human supervision. International humanitarian law prohibits weapon systems that cannot adhere to the two cardinal rules of distinction and proportionality.

A report by the Special Rapporteur issued in April 2013, stated 'Autonomous weapons may seriously undermine the ability of the international legal system to preserve a minimum world order.' This warning was echoed by Human Rights Watch in a report last November titled 'Losing humanity: the case against killer robots.'

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, we remember the critical effort to defeat a Nazi regime characterised by the terror and murder it prosecuted using the most advanced industrial and military technology available at the time, with no regard for international law or human rights. It is important we remember what we fought against in World War II and what we were fighting for. We honour and pay respect to the sacrifice of those who died or suffered in that conflict by making sure that we are not seduced by the appeal of a technology whose anonymous, unexamined, pervasive utility may nevertheless be at odds with the values we profess to hold and that may be responsible for outcomes we cannot abide.


Originally published on the website of the Parliament of Australia.

Photo courtesy of Massimiliano Pugliese.


PN member Melissa Parke MP has been serving as a member of the Australian House of Representatives since 2007. In 2013, she was the Minister for International Development in the Second Rudd Ministry.