America’s drone warfare is not only killing innocent people in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the UN is finally taking steps to examine whether these constitute war crimes.
Both Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are enthusiastic supporters of drone attacks against people in other parts of the world. Obama has in fact turned drone strikes into a major plank of his military strategy against real or perceived US enemies; the reality is their principal victims are innocent civilians, according to a number of recent studies. While American officials have never lost sleep over killing innocent people, including American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son ‘Abd al-Rahman, the legal community is beginning to take notice of such strikes. They consider the targeted killings as illegal.
In addition to two separate independent studies — one by the Law Schools at Stanford University and New York State University at the end of September, and the other by the British charity, Medact, on October 13 — the United Nations Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, QC, has also added his considerable weight to calling for effective investigations into US drone strikes. In an address to the Harvard Law School on October 25, Emmerson, a leading expert in international law, announced that the UN is to set up a dedicated investigations unit in Geneva early next year to examine the legality of drone attacks in cases where civilians are killed in so-called “targeted” counter-terrorism operations. Without mincing words, the UN legal expert also denounced America’s practice of secret rendition and waterboarding as crimes under international law. Earlier this year, he had rendered an opinion that some US drone strikes in Pakistan may amount to war crimes.
In his Harvard speech, Emmerson said, “If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms… then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act.” He went on, “Together with my colleague Christof Heyns, [the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings], I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks.” He dismissed Washington’s claim that it is entitled to conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda or other groups anywhere in the world because US officials consider the conflict to be international.
Several US officials including Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and a number of serving generals have publicly said that al-Qaeda has been badly degraded and that at most there may be 50 to 100 operatives left in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, however, is a useful bogey for a militaristic policy that the corporate masters of America demand. Maintaining an army of occupation of 100,000 in Afghanistan and an even larger number of mercenaries, euphemistically called “security contractors” cannot be justified to pursue a group of 50 or 100 bearded men brandishing Kalishnakov rifles. Add to that the massive fleets of aircraft and helicopter gunships as well as a growing number of drones and the region becomes a veritable ammunition dump.
Drones have become a weapon of choice because no American soldiers have to be deployed on the ground. American personnel sitting thousands of miles away looking at computer screens can obliterate a group of individuals with the mere push of a button. This is what has happened since June 2004 when drone attacks were first launched by then President George W. Bush. His successor Obama escalated such attacks. During his four-years in office, Obama has authorized more than 300 drone strikes compared to Bush’s 46 in his four years.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tabulated figures of between 2,985 to 4,533 civilians killed since the US launched drone strikes on Pakistan in 2004. The figures include deaths in Somalia and Yemen as well although their casualty figures are relatively low compared to those in Pakistan. While the US claims drone strikes are accurate — the word often used is “surgical” — they are anything but. The overwhelming majority of victims are civilians.
Even the militants claimed to have been hit by the drone’s Hellfire missiles, are minor figures. The most accurate figures have come from Pakistan where the majority of victims of such strikes are to be found. Publicly Pakistani officials have called for ending such strikes calling them “counterproductive” but most people in Pakistan accuse the government of being complicit in such strikes, which are part of America’s so-called global war on terrorism.
“The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” according to Emmerson. “It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations,” said the UN’s Special Rapporteur. He described the US’s global war paradigm as being based on the flimsiest of reasoning, one that even America’s allies do not support.
Obama has not only escalated drone strikes but he has also given broad new powers to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to use such weapons for targeted killings. This was confirmed by Greg Miller as early as October 3, 2010 when he wrote in the Washington Post, “The CIA is using an arsenal of armed drones and other equipment provided by the US military to secretly escalate its operations in Pakistan by striking targets beyond the reach of American forces based in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.” Even Miller was forced to describe “the targeted killing program run by the CIA” as “controversial.” He wrote, “The agency’s drone program began as a sporadic effort to kill members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network but in the past month it has been delivering what amounts to a cross-border bombing campaign in coordination with conventional military operations a few miles away.”
The result has been escalating civilian casualties. The Stanford and New York State Universities’ studies as well as Medact have confirmed mounting civilian casualties caused by the indiscriminate use of drone strikes. Rescue workers and medical professionals rushing to the scene to help the victims have also been deliberately targeted, according to the two reports. While the Stanford and New York study focused on the legal (or illegal) aspect of drone attacks, the Medact study called for including drones in international arms limitation treaties. Marion Birch, director of Medact and one of the lead authors of the report, has said the drones’ main victims are not only civilians but principally women. Dr. Birch said that while drones have killed a large number of civilians, their psychological impact on targeted societies is even greater. People in the targeted areas live in constant fear of being hit as the humming sound of drones keeps them awake at night. The impact on children is equally devastating.
Alluding to the targeting of medical professionals and rescue workers, Emmerson said in his Harvard speech: “[It is] alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. Christof Heyns… has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.” While Emmerson, as legal expert, was very careful in his choice of words, he left no doubt that if it was found that the attacks deliberately targeted medical professionals and rescue workers, then these would constitute war crimes.
Repeated studies have shown that drone attacks are a major contributing factor in the rise in anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and indeed in much of the Muslim world. At least 74% of Pakistanis have a very negative view of the US. Among them is Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), a major political party in Pakistan. He has openly condemned drone attacks and early last month (October 6–7), he led thousands of supporters on a march from Islamabad to South Waziristan to demand that such strikes cease immediately.
Imran Khan also became a victim of the drone attacks (figuratively speaking) when he visited Toronto on October 25. After addressing thousands of supporters and attending a fundraising dinner, he was scheduled to fly to New York the next day (Eid Day). US Immigration officials took him off the New York bound flight and questioned him for more than an hour about his views on drone strikes. This was not the action of some overzealous, even if ill-informed, American immigration official. Most are quite ignorant of global affairs and would be hard pressed to find Pakistan or Afghanistan on a map. Khan’s interrogation was meant to harass him on orders from on high, especially members of Homeland Security, the CIA and FBI.
Imran Khan not only missed his flight and thereby the fundraising luncheon planned for him in New York but also the anti-drone rally outside the UN headquarters to protest US drone strikes in Pakistan. He later flew to New York on another flight.
Following his questioning by US immigration officials, Imran Khan wrote on his twitter, “I was taken off from plane and interrogated by US Immigration in Canada on my views on drones. My stance is known. Drone attacks must stop.” He later told the Pakistani TV channel GEO News, “My stand on drones is very clear. I did not say sorry to them.” He described his encounter with US customs and immigration officials as “bizarre.” That is an understatement.
Imran Khan has denounced the drone strikes as “illegal” and “counterproductive” arguing that if they are meant to stop militancy, they have done exactly the opposite: militancy has escalated in Pakistan. He has called for a different approach: to work for a political solution to the problem. In this, he has the support of the vast majority of people in Pakistan, but are the Americans capable of listening? It is not the American people that want endless wars but the military-industrial-media complex that is hell-bent on mayhem and chaos worldwide. They make money from others’ misery. This is what makes the US so hated worldwide.