The UN marked Human Rights Day 2012 by declaring that everyone has the right to be heard and to shape the decisions that affect their lives and communities. "International law is clear: No matter who you are, or where you live, your voice counts," U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said in his message for the day.
But last week, not far from where these idealistic words were spoken, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested an artist for making his voice heard.
Essam Attia, had designed and surreptitiously placed satirical posters dealing with the NYPD’s potential use of pilotless drone aircraft. Attia and a team posed as maintenance workers who routinely replace advertisements in plastic cases at bus stops and other public locations. The posters simulated NYPD public service announcements and depict drones firing missiles at fleeing civilians. One of the posters says, “NYPD drones: Protection when you least expect it.” An NYPD logo appears at the bottom of the image.
In what amounts to a political vendetta against Attia for daring to criticize the police, the artist has been charged on 56 criminal counts, including grand larceny, possession of stolen property and a weapons charge for possession of an antique, unloaded .22 caliber handgun. The NYPD appears to have put some effort into hunting the artist down. Officers were seen dusting the poster-boxes for fingerprints in September, shortly after the posters began to appear.
In a video interview posted on animalnewyork.com in September, Attia—his voice disguised and face hidden—said that he posted the images “to create a conversation about the deployment of drones in American airspace. We have to remember that right now, internationally, they are being used to kill people. They’re armed: they shoot missiles. We’re fighting an illegal war in Pakistan and no one seems to want to talk about it.”
A US Army veteran who served as a geo-spatial analyst in Iraq, Attia added, “We know some [police] departments in Texas have them. It’s only a matter of time before New York has them. … Weaponized drones used to kill American citizens coming to New York City? I’m not sure I’m cool with that.”
In February, Congress approved legislation that would allow 30,000 drones in American airspace by 2020. Predator drones, the same aircraft that the US military uses in Pakistan and Yemen, already patrol the US-Mexican border and were used last year by police in North Dakota. The environmental Protection Agency has reportedly been using drones to spy on cattle ranchers in Nebraska.
The sheriff’s office in Alameda County, California, was recently forced to suspend the purchase of a surveillance drone after a public outcry.
In New York City, a memo released under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year revealed discussions between the NYPD and the Federal Aviation Administration in which the NYPD stated it was “investigating the possible use of UAV's [unmanned aerial vehicles] as a law enforcement tool.”
The most notorious use of drones has been that of the Bush and Obama administrations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere where they have been used not only for surveillance but to kill over 2,500 civilians as part of an effort to assassinate a smaller number of individuals that the president deems to be terrorist. Several American citizens have been killed in these operations, including Anwar al-Awalki, targeted by a CIA drone in Yemen by presidential order in September last year.
History of Human Rights Day
The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation, on 10 December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major achievements of the new United Nations. December 10, 1896 is the death date of Alfred Nobel, whose Nobel Peace Prize is also awarded on this date. Sunday (December 9) in Oslo, Norway, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union drew at least 1000 protesters, who claimed that awarding the prize to the EU contradicts Alfred Nobel’s vision of a demilitarized global peace order.