Two new reports on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yeman by two respected organizations, Amnesty International and Human Right Watch, raise extremely troubling questions about the use and legality of weapon which has been used with increasing frequency by the Obama administration.
“WILL I BE NEXT?”
US Drone Strikes in Pakistan
“Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda”
Human Rights Watch
The reports document so-called “rescuer strikes,” a terror tactic often attributed to Al-Qaeda. In these attacks, a second drone is programmed to attack shortly after the first, targeting rescuers responding to the initial attack.
From the Amnesty report:
Amnesty International investigated cases in which secondary drone strikes were carried out, that
is, strikes that appeared to target those trying to help victims of initial drone strikes. As previously
documented by CIVIC, Reprieve and other organizations, these so-called “rescuer attacks” have
had a devastating impact on people in North Waziristan, with many residents fearing they will be
killed whether or not they belong to an armed group. As noted above, in the 6 July 2012 attack on
Zowi Sidgi, drones appear to have deliberately fired missiles at people who came to assist victims
of the initial strike, resulting in at least a further six deaths, numerous injuries, and sowing fear
and panic among Zowi Sidgi residents. “Because of the second attack [on rescuers] no one dared
return to the site until the next morning,” said Irfan.
In another attack, in Darai Nishtar on 23 July 2012, US drones targeted, according to residents,
fighters from the Maulvi Ihsanullah group which are part of the Haqqani network of the Afghan
Taliban. “It was evening time and it was very difficult to understand how many planes were there,”
recalled eyewitness Shakeeb. “It was fast-breaking time and we were sitting together to break
our fast. Then the first drone attack took place on the Taliban Centre near Shaingai Shrine. The
missiles, about six or seven, hit the building direct.”
At least six residents who, as far as Amnesty International could determine, were not directly
participating in hostilities, were killed by a follow-up strike as they were attempting to rescue those
injured in the initial attack. Among the local residents killed in the follow-up strike were Khatim,
Noor Wali, Sabirkai and Bashirullah. According to residents interviewed by Amnesty International,
these four men and possibly the two others killed, were not members of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban or
other armed groups but ordinary residents. “Some locals came to offer help when the second strike
occurred. By then I tried to get as far as possible from there,” Shakeeb added.
It’s a sad comment on how we start to take on the attributes we find most repellent in our enemies.
Both reports review applicable provisions of international law, and find that certain of these drone attacks may be considered war crimes. These sections of the reports deserve careful reading, especially in light of the Obama administration’s failure to disclose the legal basis of its policies or the policies themselves.
International law prohibits arbitrary killing and limits the lawful use of intentional lethal force to exceptional situations. In armed conflict, only combatants and people directly participating in hostilities may be directly targeted. Outside armed conflict, intentional lethal force is lawful only when strictly unavoidable to protect against an imminent threat to life . In some circumstances arbitrary killing can amount to a war crime or extrajudicial execution, which are crimes under international law.
The USA’s promise to increase transparency around drone strikes, underscored by a major policy speech by President Barack Obama in May 2013, has yet to become a reality, and the USA still refuses to divulge even basic factual and legal information.
This secrecy has enabled the USA to act with impunity and block victims from receiving justice or compensation. As far as Amnesty International is aware, no US official has ever been held to account for unlawful killings by drones in Pakistan.
In any case, these are reports that deserve wide circulation.