U.S. Army at Shannon Airport - Unjustifiable On Any Level

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John Lannon, Shannonwatch
Speech given at Public Meeting 'US Army Out of Shannon; Troops Out of Afghanistan', Wynn's Hotel Dublin 27 May 2010. Organised by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) and the Irish Anti-War Movement (IAWM)

“We’d all prefer if there were no wars …”
This is a quote from a Clare Fianna Fail TD, speaking on a local radio show in early May 2010. It was a few days after Omni Air International, the main airline company transporting U.S. troops through Shannon, stopped using the airport. They did so because of the volcanic ash from Iceland which was drifting in and out of Irish airspace. As a result of the pull-out, 30 workers were laid of at the airport and this prompted local media interest and discussion.

During the radio programme which I and two others took part in, it became clear that nobody knew if or when the U.S. troop carriers would come back, or even when a decision would be communicated to the airport authorities. Being a member of a government that has gone out of its way to help the U.S. in its so-called “war on terror”, bending their rules on neutrality to breaking point to do so, you might think the TD would have been given some indication. Especially since the U.S. President Obama expressed such gratitude for the use of the airport to our Taoiseach Brian Cowan when they met on St Patrick’s Day.

As it happens the Omni Air planes were back on Thursday 20th May. It was a return (as far as we know) to the routine 600 foreign troops a day through the airport. But given the speed with which the U.S. military carrier switched to a different route in early May, nobody should expect any job security based on their presence.

The arguments in favour of keeping the U.S military in Shannon usually come down to a few precarious jobs like the ones temporarily lost earlier this month. And the corporate investment fallacy. An Ireland Chamber of Commerce president in the U.S. said in 2008 that “the United States played an integral role in steering corporate investment into Ireland as a priority track in ensuring economic stability and accelerated growth”. This is frequently linked to the U.S. military use of Shannon - the argument is that refusing the use of our airport to their army will jeopardize the corporate investment. But the decision of Dell Computers to lay off 1,900 workers in Limerick in 2009 has shown that corporate decision making and U.S. army logistics are not that closely connected.

There is also perhaps a tendency to latch ourselves onto an imperial superpower that might throw scraps our way from their global pillaging. Given our proud fight against colonialism, this should present the main party in government in Ireland with a dilemma. But it doesn’t seem to … the sovereign independence that they as a republican party and we as Irish people claim to hold dear is being forsaken without the issue being adequately addressed in public discourse.

So we can put the economic arguments in favour of the U.S military business at Shannon to bed. It is of little economic benefit to the mid-West region. There is no investment by the U.S. military in infrastructure that could contribute to regional development. The airport has become an empty barn, apart from the 600 or so soldiers in combat gear airside. There is no attempt to promote tourism; there is no vision beyond short term financial gain by the DAA. In fact I would argue that economically Shannon Airport has been run down either by accident or design to the extent that jobs are immediately gone when one customer – the U.S. army - stop using it for a few days.

Granted, some money changes hands when these planes land. No landing fees charged as far as we know, but airport workers tell us that when a cargo plane contracted by a U.S. government department lands and is serviced, a credit card payment is often made directly to the Fixed Base Operator. The equivalent of our political brown envelopes - no questions to be asked about what or who is on board; just follow the instructions on the ramp chit and take the payment.  

Sadly the Fianna Fail TD who claimed to be against war seemed quite happy with the war in Afghanistan and Irish involvement in it. We didn’t get around to debating the seven Irish soldiers serving in Afghanistan, nor do I don’t plan to cover it here. But it is worth noting that even by the measure of a “just war”, a somewhat flawed concept revived by President Obama at his undeserved Nobel prize acceptance speech, there is no justification for our involvement in this war of occupation. The six essential elements of a supposedly “just war” are: just cause, proportionality, proper authority, last resort, right intention, and reasonable hope for success. How many does the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan satisfy? None.
Before I get back to the specific issues surrounding Shannon, I want to say something about the group I represent, Shannonwatch. We are a small group of peace and human rights activists based around Limerick/Shannon. In the tradition of the Irish anti-war protest that began almost a decade ago, we continue to hold monthly protest vigils at Shannon on the second Sunday of every month. We also do continuous monitoring of all military flights in and out of Shannon and through Irish airspace. Summaries are available on our website www.shannonwatch.org.
For me there are four areas of concern surrounding the U.S. military use of Shannon, all based on legal and normative frameworks. They are:

  • breaches of international and European human rights law, as well as domestic Irish law. These relate to known and suspected involvement in rendition – in other words kidnapping and torture. This is best known as a CIA program but the military have also been shown to be active in this regard.
  • the application of aviation law in relation to the transportation of munitions of war and other explosive substances;
  • possible breaches of international humanitarian law, again relating to the transportation of certain types of munitions;
  • breaches of Irish neutrality.

Human rights laws and renditions
Amnesty International, European Parliament, Council of Europe, and the Irish Human Rights Commission have all drawn attention to the use of Shannon in the shameful U.S. renditions programme. We (Shannonwatch) have logged known or suspicious planes landing there over the years. Even in 2009 some of these continued to use Shannon – and as we know the use of torture and CIA holding sites around the world is not a thing of the past.

A number of international treaties apply to Shannon in the relation to rendition flights. The main one is the United Nations Convention Against Torture which Ireland has ratified through the Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention against Torture)Act 2000.

At European level there’s the European Convention on Human Rights. Ireland is also bound by this.

So Ireland has an obligation to arrest and charge anyone reasonably suspected of having committed torture. But the Gardai have always ignored requests to inspect suspicious planes – I was told on one occasion by a sergeant that this was a “policy decision”.

Aviation Law
International civil aviation is governed by the Chicago Convention to which Ireland is a party. This is relevant in the case of the use of Shannon Airport by rendition planes. It is also relevant in relation to the movement of war munitions through Ireland by a foreign power. Article 35 states that “no munitions of war may be carried in or above the territory of a State in aircraft engaged in international navigation, except by permission of such State”.

The provisions of the Chicago Convention have come into effect in Ireland through the Air Navigation and Transport Act. Section 33 of this Act allows an authorised officer (a Garda for example) to stop, detain and search any person or vehicle on an aerodrome in the interests of safety and security. This would allow inspection of aircraft, but it has not been used to search planes suspected of involvement in renditions or possible illegal arms transportation as far as we know. However the Gardai regularly use Section 33 to impede peaceful protest and the monitoring of the US military planes, resulting in local activists being repeatedly ordered to leave the aerodrome, forcibly removed, or arrested.

The Chicago Convention clause about not taking munitions of war through a State’s territory is covered here in Ireland by the Carriage of Munitions of War, Weapons and Dangerous Goods Order. Any civilian aircraft seeking to land - or overfly - the State requires the permission of the Minister for Transport to carry military weapons or munitions. In 2009 the Minister granted 1,276 permits;  the vast majority of these were from American civil airlines chartered by the U.S. military.

Apart from the Omni Air troop carriers there are several airlines landing at Shannon that are likely to be carrying cargo that is (a) a safety hazard for airport workers and visitors and (b) possibly used to commit war crimes or human rights abuse in another part of the world.
For example

  • For most of 2009 there were regular weekly flights via Shannon by Murray Air to Bagram Air base;
  • Kalitta Air – and airline that was found to be covertly transporting laser-guided bunker busters through Prestwick a few years ago for use by the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon – use Shannon regularly;
  • Another defense contractor, Evergreen International, is often there. Like the others we don’t know what its cargo contains
  • And over the years Volga Dnepr and Vega Airlines have taken cargo for the U.S. Department of State through Shannon – often including munitions.

Incidentally the provisions of the Chicago Convention do not apply to military, customs or police aircraft such as U.S.Air Force jets as these are regarded as “State aircraft”. You have to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs about these – not the Minister for Transport. But of course he’s not likely to tell you anything. Ministerial answers to questions relating to Ireland/Shannon/war tend to be very, very brief.

International Humanitarian Law

The protection of civilians from the effects of armed conflict is best known through the Geneva Conventions. But in the case of Shannon international humanitarian law is relevant in relation to the type of munitions that might be transported through the airport - or indeed through Irish airspace.

  • We know that landmines are outlawed – but of course the U.S. have not signed up to the treaty.
  • So too are cluster munitions. And Ireland played a large part in the adoption of the cluster munitions treaty. Wouldn’t it be a great embarrassment to the government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin if it was discovered that there were cluster bombs coming through Shannon?
  • And then there’s depleted uranium. Currently there is no international ban on the use or transport of this, shamefully. So that too might be on some of the planes coming through Shannon.

Irish governments have claimed that allowing aircraft to use Irish soil does not constitute participation in any particular conflict and is compatible with a neutral stance. The relevant international law is the Hague Convention V – and even though Ireland hasn’t ratified it, a 2003 High Court judgement stated that Ireland was in breach by allowing US troops to use Shannon airport on their way to and from a war in Iraq.

Here are some of the statistics relating to Shannon in “neutral” Ireland:

  • There are an average of 20 landings per week at Shannon by U.S. troop carriers. Over 600 soldiers a day go through the airport. There have been 2 million U.S. soldiers in Shannon since 2002. That’s not a small army – that’s half the population of Ireland.
  • There are 20, 30 – sometimes 40 – U.S. Air Force / navy planes per month at the airport. These include in-flight refueling aircraft, executive jets, transport jets such as Boeing 737’s. There are also Hercules C-130 military transport aircraft, typically used to deliver weapons and other equipment to areas of military operations. They are capable for example of transporting the robotic Predator drones used by the U.S. to track and hit from the air in Afghanistan & Pakistan. These have caused the sad loss of life of far too many innocent civilians.
  • We have 2 U.S. officers of military rank stationed at Shannon. They rotate every 6 months and are well known to the fixed base operators. The constitutionality or otherwise of their presence is yet to be determined.

Also of course under the 1954 Defense Act military personnel are forbidden to enter or land in the State while wearing a uniform, except with written Ministerial permission. However the U.S. Embassy sought and was granted permission for their troops to wear duty uniform in the “immediate vicinity of an arrival/departure airfield.” In other words they have been given carte blanche to behave as if they were at home at Shannon.

I want to finish by thanking the IAWM and PANA for organising this meeting. It can be a thankless task sometimes campaigning down in Shannon but we are determined to keep going. We need to re-energise the campaign – put it in the context of the corruption and the slipping of standards we have seen at the highest levels in this country; the lack of respect those who hold power have for the dignity and rights of ordinary people. The U.S. military at Shannon and the unjust nature of the war in Afghanistan have been removed from public discourse. Very few people even know that there are over 3,000 armed U.S. soldiers in Shannon every week. Or that we’re helping to foster instability, corruption and human suffering in Afghanistan by providing personnel to take part in the occupation.

The challenge for us all is to put this back on the national agenda. Even if the U.S. military do decide to pull out of Shannon permanently the next time a cloud of ash blows in, the campaign has not been won. We are still part of the global war industry. Our standards as an unaligned peaceful nation have slipped and they need to be restored.

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