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News & Analysis

US drone strikes come on global radar screen

Zia Sarhadi

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have questioned US drone strikes and say those that authorize them may face war crimes charges. The UN has also condemned them.

The nearly decade-long US drone warfare is beginning to attract international attention. Amnesty International’s 62-page report released on October 22 came on the heels of a similar one by the United Nations four days earlier. The human rights body in its report said that American officials responsible for carrying out or authorizing secret CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s troubled tribal region may have committed war crimes and should stand trial.

Amnesty’s report was released in conjunction with a similar report by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) that investigated US missile strikes in Yemen. HRW said that US strikes could contravene laws of armed conflict and International Human Rights Law. Taken together, the two reports begin to get to the heart of US extra-judicial killings around the world that may constitute war crimes. Even the United Nations has expressed concern under its Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, who has pursued US drone strikes relentlessly and frequently pointed out that they constitute war crimes. Emmerson, an eminent British barrister, has a good handle on the legality of such issues.

In its report, Amnesty International said it “reviewed all 45 reported US drone strikes in Pakistan from January 2012 to August 2013, and conducted detailed research on nine separate drone strike cases in North Waziristan.” This is the troubled tribal region of Pakistan where the US launched its first drone strike in November 2004. Since then, these strikes have escalated and resulted in thousands of casualties.

The US refuses to divulge the number of drone strikes it has carried out in Pakistan since 2004, nor does it say how many people it has killed. After every strike, US officials issue a routine statement claiming to have killed “suspected militants.” Invariably, these alleged militants are innocent civilians, as Amnesty has highlighted in its report. The case of 68-year-old grandmother, Mamana Bibi is particularly heart wrenching. “She was tending her crops in Ghundi Kala village [North Waziristan] on the afternoon of 24 October 2012, when she was killed instantly by two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone aircraft.”

Her grandson, Zubair Rehman, who witnessed the strike because he was standing 120 feet away, told Amnesty International that she was gathering okra from the family field to cook for their evening meal when missiles killed the elderly woman. Her three granddaughters, Nabeela, 8, Asma, 7 and Naeema, 5, were also in the field but more than 100 feet away. Shrapnel from the missiles injured the three girls as well as their three-year-old brother, “Safdar, standing on the roof of their home, [who] fell 10 feet to the ground, fracturing several bones in his chest and shoulders. Because he did not receive immediate specialist medical care, he continues to suffer complications from the injury.” Several other children were also injured.

The Amnesty report went on to say, “Accustomed to seeing drones overhead, Mamana Bibi and her grandchildren continued their daily routine. ‘The drone planes were flying over our village all day and night, flying in pairs sometimes three together. We had grown used to them flying over our village all the time,’ Zubair Rehman said. ‘I was watering our animals and my brother was harvesting maize crop,’ said Nabeela.”

Then, in the presence of her family, Mamana Bibi was blown to pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles fired concurrently from a US drone aircraft. Nabeela, a pretty girl with hazel eyes, told Amnesty International that before the attack she was not afraid of drones. After seeing her grandmother blown to pieces, she is now very scared and each time she hears the humming sound of the drone, she thinks, “Will I be next?”

Unlike Malala Yousafzai, another Pakistani girl that was attacked by the Taliban last year and has become something of an international celebrity including an invitation to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, Nabeela is not expecting a White House invitation. She was injured at the same time as Malala and also witnessed the murder of her grandmother but it is highly unlikely that Obama or any other Western ruler would even mention her name. The US has so far refused to acknowledge that its drone strikes killed an elderly grandmother and injured several innocent children doing little more than trying to eke out a lowly existence. Any compensation to the poor family is out of the question. That would not advance “US interests.”

American attitude to such attacks and killings was evident, yet again, in the statement by White House spokesperson Jay Carney on October 22 when he said drone strikes cause less “collateral damage.” He went on to justify them by saying that in regular bombing attacks, many more innocent people get killed, while sending troops into other countries is denounced as an invasion. The White House press corps did not ask him whether the US was at war with Pakistan. That would be too much to expect from a media that act as drumbeaters for American imperialism.

The Pakistani government, too, is not likely to raise Nabeela’s or her siblings’ plight or the murder of their grandmother even if publicly it has called the drone strikes “unhelpful” and asked that they should stop. If Pakistan wants, it has the capability to shoot down the killer drones but as the UN report pointed out, drone strikes from 2004–2008 were carried out with the consent of top Pakistani military and civilian officials. That was when General Pervez Musharraf was in power. The former military dictator has admitted that the issue of drone strikes came up for discussion a few times during his rule. Musharraf has been out of power since August 2008 but US drone strikes have not ended despite widespread opposition from the people. It is obvious that Pakistani rulers — military and civilian — acquiesce to such crimes.

While the US will not say how many drone attacks it has carried out in Pakistan since 2004, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said earlier this year that 4,700 people had been killed so far. He did not elaborate what countries were included in this figure. The Pakistani government says more than 330 strikes have been carried out in Pakistan that have caused 2,200 deaths of which at least 400 to 600 are civilians. More than 600 have been injured according to Pakistani figures. These figures do not include the deaths caused as a result of the US “war on terror.” At least 40,000 people have been killed in Pakistan; the country has also suffered nearly $100 billion in financial losses.

Figures compiled by the Long War Journal, New American Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, show there have been 348–374 CIA drone strikes during this period resulting in 2,065–3,613 deaths. Civilian deaths range from as low as 153 to as high as 926. These include 168–200 children based on figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a group that has perhaps done more than any other organization to keep track of civilian casualties resulting from US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Referring to the killing of Mamana Bibi, Amnesty International said, it “has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.” It called for those responsible to stand trial. Given the present global environment, it is highly unlikely that any US official would ever see the inside of a court, much less be convicted for such a crime. The US operates above the law.
The British daily, The Guardian, tried to put a different spin on Amnesty’s report about the killing of a 68-year-old grandmother in Pakistan saying, “the case is striking failure of a technology much vaunted for its accuracy” (October 22, 2013). Is it really a case of “failure of technology” or total disregard by the US of human life in other parts of the world?

In a separate report, Human Rights Watch highlighted six incidents in Yemen, two of which it said were a “clear violation of international humanitarian law.” The remaining four may have broken the laws of armed conflict because the targets were illegitimate or because not enough was done to minimise civilian harm, the report said.

HRW cited the example of a drone strike that killed two al-Qaeda suspects while they were riding on a truck 12 miles south of the capital Sana‘a; the attack also reportedly killed two civilians earlier this year. “That means the attack could have been illegal because it ‘may have caused disproportionate harm to civilians,’” according to Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty rejected the legality of the US’ “global war doctrine” saying that “to accept such a policy would be to endorse state practices that fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making.” The human rights group also reviewed the case of 18 labourers killed in Zowi Sidgi village in North Waziristan on July 12, 2012. They had gathered to eat dinner.

“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.” Would the reports by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the UN deter the US from continuing with drone strikes? Nobody should hold his breath.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 9

Dhu al-Hijjah 27, 14342013-11-01

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