[Casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan are buried. (Photo: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)]
By Alishba Khaliq
US drone strikes in Pakistan may amount to “extrajudicial executions or war crimes”, according to an October report by Amnesty International (AI).
Analysis of the drone strikes in Pakistan has led AI to conclude that the US drone strikes are unlikely to “satisfy the law enforcement standards that govern intentional use of lethal force outside armed conflict.”
Civilian drone deaths also do not abide by international humanitarian law governing armed conflicts since those killed are not directly involved in armed conflict nor pose a threat to life at the time of being killed.
AI has stressed that the US needs to be transparent in its legal justifications behind its drone programme.
It also suggests that the US should cease using its “global war” on terror doctrine which allows unimpeded execution of drone strikes on an international scale.
The first US drone attack took place in Yemen in 2002 killing 6 men, but has since expanded to include Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.
AI also points out that the US drone killing policy “are not only of concern in their own right” they also set a dangerous precedent for other states wishing avoid accountability for their own unlawful killings.
The report reviews nine out of the 45 reported drone strikes that took place between January 2012 and August in North Waziristan, which borders Pakistan and is one of the seven tribal agencies that make up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
According to the Long War journal 72 % of all drone strikes in Pakistan have taken place in this tribal agency. Since 2001 North Waziristan has acted as a refuge area for Taliban and Al-Qa’ida fighters fleeing from US military in Afghanistan. However, besides armed groups, North Waziristan is also home to 840,000 civilians who often become “collateral damage” by the hands of armed groups, Pakistani armed forces and US drones.
Among the drone attack incidents in the report is the death of 68 year-old Mamana Bibi who was blown to pieces in front of her grandchildren in the family fields on October 27, 2012. The force of the two consecutive strikes also resulted in fractured bones of her 3 year-old grandson who was thrown 10ft to the ground, and shrapnel injuries for several of her other grandchildren. The report branded the targeting of a defenceless woman a “catastrophic failure” and ruled she was either misidentified as a target; or was targeted based on “faulty intelligence and the attack was not cancelled after it became apparent that the target was a civilian; or drone operators deliberately targeted and killed Mamana Bibi.”
Two of Mamana’s grandchildren, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9, along with their father Rafeeq-ul-Rehman, travelled to Washington last month to give unprecedented drone’s victims evidence. “Here in America people can live peacefully and they don’t have to live in the fear that I live. But it’s the Americans who are causing the fear that I live in, in North Waziristan. Here I do feel safe but the reason that I’m feeling safe is because I’m not hearing the noise of the drones”, Zubair told Congress members who attended the briefing. Only five out of 535 Congress members attended.
Ul-Rehman said that the US was “fighting violence with violence, and that is not a solution.” He added that “If you want to end a war and bring peace to an area, especially North Waziristan, the most important thing is building trust and using negotiations and discussions.”
The mental and emotional health of residents of the drones-affected areas have been affected by the constant fear of being attacked. Some rely on sleeping pills to rest at night as the noise of drones and fear of attack makes sleep evasive. A resident of Zowi Sidgi village in North Waziristan told AI that “Children have lost their mental balance, they are afraid all the time…After seeing the body parts and hearing the screaming of the victims, my young nephew is always scared and crying, running towards his mother saying the drone could come and strike again.”
On July 6, 2012, drones fired missiles at workers gathered by a tent in Zowi Sidgi village. Four drones opened fire, killing 8 people. A second series of missiles followed, targeting rescuers. In total 18 people died and at least 22, including an 8 year-old girl, were injured.
All the people interviewed (separately) by AI insisted all the victims were non combatants.
A number of other incidents are mentioned in the report where rescuers of drone victims were targeted by follow-up drone strikes in defiance of international law, which prohibits the targeting of the wounded and rescuers during combat.
The drone incidents mentioned in the report are not the only time that children have become the target of drone strikes. An 8, 11 and 12 year old were killed by an airstrike in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in October 2012. Two months earlier Marine official Army Lt Col Marion Carrington admitted to The Military Times they were “looking for children with potential hostile intent”.
An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesperson said this was due to insurgents using children as suicide bombers in violation of orders from Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The strikes in Pakistan are also not lone incidents of US drone programmes infringing international rules. In July last year UN investigators conducting a report on the danger that drones pose to air traffic in the skies over Somalia, found US-manufactured drones to be among those involved in closely prevented disasters. The presence of drones over Somalia breaches the arms embargo that the UN has imposed on the war-ravaged country since 1992. Despite this the US has been conducting furtive drone operations over Somalia to fight Al-Shabab.
Both the CIA – responsible for controlling the drone programme – and the White House were unwilling to supply AI information about specific drone strike cases.
Similarly, while a few Pakistani officials like the Governor of Khyber Pakthunkhwa province, the Secretariat of FATA and the Foreign Ministry shared information about circumstances of law and order in the tribal areas and US drone programme on Pakistani soil, none were willing to elaborate on particular strikes or on the alleged collaboration of Pakistani officials with the US programme.
Though media reports about militants being killed in strikes nearly always stem from Pakistani and US security officials, both countries have not made details about the strikes publicly available.
This lack of accurate information is reflected in the varying figures quoted by different sources in relation to the number of drone strikes and victims. AI, say they cannot verify the figures themselves, quote Pakistani organisations and NGOs to report that there have been between 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 till September this year, killing 400-900 civilians and injuring at least 600.
A report by Stanford and New York university academics state between 2,562 and 3,325 Pakistanis have been killed since the strikes began in 2004. Up to 881 of these were civilians – a figure that includes 176 children – while only 41 have been confirmed as ’high-value’ terrorists. According to London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2,500 and 3,600 people have been killed in almost 400 strikes.
What these sources unanimously show are high numbers of civilian deaths and casualties; figures which are extremely concerning in the light of President Barak Obama’s remark in May this year that a drone strike is not carried out without there being “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”
Discrepancy between public statements from US authorities over drone strikes and independent figures have been common over the years. In June 2010 for example, John Brennan, chief counter-terrorism adviser to Obama, said that during the previous year there had not been ’a single collateral death’ while according to The Australian newspaper independent researchers were estimating civilian deaths to be up to 800.
AI calls for greater transparency from the relevant US authorities about its drone programmes. “Secrecy surrounding the drones programme gives the US Administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law,” said AI’s Pakistan Researcher and author of the report, Mustafa Qadri. He added that “It’s time for the USA to come clean about the drones programme and hold those responsible for these violations to account.”
The US Administration has in the past tried to prevent judicial reviews of alleged illegal killings brought to US courts by human rights groups. The Amnesty report stresses the need for impartial and independent investigations into drone strikes and the need “to ensure meaningful access to remedy where appropriate” from both US and Pakistani authorities.
Though Pakistan has publically voiced its disapproval of the US drone including to the UN, there’s uncertainty as to whether the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are secretly collaborating with the US. An article in the Wall Street Journal in September last year declared that an ISI general received a monthly fax from the CIA broadly outlining areas where drone strikes would be targeted. The ISI allegedly sent a receipt message back each time. However, after the US raid in Abbottabad to capture Osama bin Laden in May 2011, acknowledgements of receipt ceased.
Recently, The Washington Post quoting leaked secret CIA documents and Pakistani memos, stated that top officials in the Pakistani Governments were not only aware of, but also endorsed, dozens of drone strikes from late 2007 till 2011.
Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousaf Raza Gilani, denies endorsing the strikes.
The Washington Post revelation came soon after Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, called drone strikes “a major irritant” in US-Pakistani relations during his visit to Washington last month and declared that there is a “need for an end to drone attacks”. A senior Pakistani security official denying these allegations claimed that “The purpose of giving such stories is nothing but face-saving. Americans are trying to dilute the growing pressure by using back channels and making Pakistan a party to the whole issue.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said that regardless of what agreements there may have been between the US and previous governments, the current government has made it clear that the strikes violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and should stop.