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Ear to the Ground

Two Human Rights Groups Target U.S. Drone Policy as Illegal

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Posted on Oct 22, 2013
Doctress Neutopia (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Two notable human rights advocacy groups Tuesday took aim at the United States’ highly controversial—and possibly illegal—use of drones in separate reports that offered chillingly detailed looks at the effects of a foreign policy that has killed hundreds of people, many of whom have nothing to do with militant insurgencies.

The U.S. government has been silent on the policy, other than to defend it in general terms. But the two new reports suggest that the Obama administration needs to review how it deploys and uses drones—with one eye on international law. Amnesty International, citing statistics compiled by Pakistani officials and nongovernmental organizations, estimates the U.S. launched as many as 374 drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to the end of last month, killing as many as 900 civilians and seriously injuring at least 600 others.

Amnesty, in its report, decided to deep-dive into 45 reported strikes in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency between January 2012 and August 2013. The region is “one of the seven tribal agencies that make up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Tribal Areas), a loosely-governed territory in the northwest.”

Because the US government refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out, Amnesty International is unable to reach ?rm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi [a woman killed while working in a field] and on the 18 laborers [killed in a dining tent] took place, and therefore their status under international law. However, based on its review of incidents over the last two years, Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.

The prevailing secrecy surrounding drone strikes, restrictions on access to drone-affected areas, and the refusal of the US administration to explain the international legal basis for individual attacks raise concerns that other strikes in the Tribal Areas may have also violated human rights. This includes drone strikes before 2012, the period prior to the incidents documented in this report, when killings were more frequent and widespread across these areas.

The report notes that the region is relatively lawless and rife with Islamist militants, including al-Qaida soldiers, despite the presence of Pakistani military troops, and that its residents often “do not enjoy key human rights protections under Pakistani and international law.” But that’s no justification for blowing them up as they go about their daily lives.

Amnesty International called on the U.S. to adhere to international law and allow “thorough, impartial, and independent investigations” into the deaths; make public details on all drone strikes in Pakistan; investigate civilian casualties; and “where there is sufficient admissible evidence that individuals may be responsible for an unlawful killing or other serious human rights violation, the authorities must ensure they are brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty. Victims of violations must be provided with compensation and meaningful access to full reparation including restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.”

Human Rights Watch was equally harsh in its assessment of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, another popular target, and directly accused the U.S. of violating international law in going after suspected members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

The strike in Khashamir is one of six unacknowledged US military attacks against alleged AQAP members in Yemen that this report examines. Each of the airstrikes bears the hallmarks of a so-called targeted killing, the deliberate killing by a government of a known individual under color of law.

Two these attacks were in clear violation of international humanitarian law—the laws of war—because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons. The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm, determinations that require further investigation. In several of these cases the US also did not take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, as the laws of war require.

Like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to offer more transparency and accountability into the drone strikes program, and open itself to investigations of possible violations of international law. It also recommended the U.S. “abide by US policy enunciated by President Obama on May 23, 2013, that, where feasible, ‘always … detain’ rather than kill a target, and strike only when there is ‘near-certainty’ that the target is present and that civilians will not be harmed.”

It called for congressional oversight investigations, which one would think, given the current political climate, the House would jump on, though that would likely descend into a meaningless tea party circus. But Human Rights Watch also called for investigations from the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international bodies with the skills and jurisdiction, which could be more meaningful and useful venues.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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