The Collegian
Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Richmond to confront the ethical and legal issue of drone use

Journalist and filmmaker Madiha Tahir presented her 20-minute documentary, "Wounds of Waziristan," Nov. 6, highlighting the stories of Pakistani civilians directly affected by United States drone attacks.

The documentary centers on drone warfare in Pakistan's tribal areas, close to the border of Afghanistan. Tahir said the American media tended to neglect these remote areas in their coverage of U.S. attacks.

"There is a refusal to cover these people as a legitimate voice or as individuals able to tell their own stories," she said.

In the small villages of Waziristan, innocent civilians face the possibility of strikes every day. Rather than discussing drone use in legal terms, the film endeavors to sympathize with people living on the ground, Tahir said.

"Drones hover overhead and create a lot of anxiety and stress among civilians," Tahir said. "There is a daily, continual terror being generated by drones."

Tahir's documentary screening is part of a campus-wide discussion series taking place this month regarding the ethical and legal use of drone strikes. Peter Smallwood, professor of biology, said the issues surrounding drones were an important debate to bring to University of Richmond.

"Drone strikes are a huge part of how the world sees the United States today," he said. "As citizens and voters of this country, we are in some way responsible."

Drone warfare in the Middle East is something that is relevant to Smallwood personally, he said. From 2008 to 2009, Smallwood was living in Kabul, where drone strikes occurred frequently.

"At that time, this issue was not as commonly recognized or reported on," he said. "We certainly weren't at the place where we are now with our use of drones and its international association with the U.S."

To bring this discussion to Richmond's campus, Smallwood collaborated with the journalism department, which later contacted Tahir, he said. Smallwood said the decision to present "Wounds of Waziristan" within the series was important because it provided audiences with an essential, first-hand account of drone attacks.

"Madiha gave us the collateral damage perspective we were missing," Smallwood said. "Her documentary tells us what drones are like from the ground."

The series will also feature a debate on the use of drones as lethal weapons in armed conflict. Benjamin Wittes of the Brooking's Institute and Conor Friedersdorf, an investigative journalist for The Atlantic, will present their respective arguments at the Cannon Memorial Chapel Nov. 13. The university is co-sponsoring the debate with the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond, Smallwood said.

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Richmond law professor John Paul Jones will serve as moderator for the debate. Jones, a World War II veteran, teaches a course on military law and has been studying drone use in armed conflict for the past four years.

"Each of us has to make our own decision about this as a citizen and moral person," Jones said. "I think the two debaters will present a reliable case made for both sides of a very close call."

The day following the debate, two members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will speak about the organization's official policy stand on drone use. Many states have faith in the ICRC to a degree they withhold from any other NGO, Jones said.

"Their perspective is probably the one assessment of the situation that cannot be ignored," he said. "I think it's quite important that we're going to be hearing from them about this."

This is the first time the Richmond campus will confront this widely debated topic, Smallwood said. The overall intention is to have students think about the importance of this issue, he said.

"I hope that students can understand that those strikes are being done in our name," he said. "We should try to have some acceptance of what we're doing, and if not, feel obligated to raise our voice about it."

The series is a joint collaboration among various university departments and schools, including the School of Arts and Sciences, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the School of Continuing Studies, the Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law Program (PPEL), the Office of International Education and the Richmond School of Law.

Contact reporter Gaby Calabrese at

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