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Killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan in drone attacks should not remain unpunished

11:09 | 07.11.2013 | Analytic


7 November 2013. PenzaNews. Global human rights organization Amnesty International called the US authorities to investigate unlawful drone killings in Pakistan. The report, “’Will I be next?’ US drone strikes in Pakistan,” which was published on the website of the organization on October 22 and describes 45 drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan between January 2012 and August 2013, provides new evidence that through drone strikes, the US has killed people who posed no apparent threat to life.

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It documents recent killings in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas and the almost complete absence of transparency around the US drone program.

The organization conducted detailed field research into nine of these strikes, with the report documenting killings, which raise serious questions about violations of international law that could amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions.

According to Amnesty International, in October 2012, 68-year-old grandmother Mamana Bibi was killed in a double strike, apparently by a Hellfire missile, as she picked vegetables in the family’s fields while surrounded by a handful of her grandchildren. In July 2012, 18 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in multiple strikes on a impoverished village close to the border with Afghanistan.

Contrary to official claims that those killed were “terrorists,” Amnesty International’s research indicates that the victims of these attacks were not involved in fighting and posed no threat to life.

“We cannot find any justification for these killings. There are genuine threats to the USA and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances. But it is hard to believe that a group of laborers, or an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all, let alone posing an imminent threat to the United States,” said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher.

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 tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban,” said Mustafa Qadri.

However, some Western experts and media figures criticized Amnesty International’s report on the human rights impact of the US drone program in Pakistan, saying “the study is marred by discrepancies, unverified claims, and dubious witness statements.”

For instance, military reporter and commentator David Axe in an interview to one of the media outlets said that Amnesty’s photos of missile debris did not prove what kind of missile it was, unless there were clearly identifiable markings that could be traced back to the operator or manufacturer.

“Amnesty’s report rests on a chain of assumptions. It’s not that drones don’t kill lots of innocent people—they do. But the particulars matter if we’re going to base policy on them,” he said.

At the same time, many experts had already tried to draw attention to the problem of nontransparency of the American drone program. For example Anthony Dworkin, ECFR Senior Policy Fellow working on human rights, international justice and international humanitarian law, expressed the opinion that it is not data protection and surveillance that produces the most complications for the transatlantic intelligence relationship, but rather America’s use of armed drones to kill terrorist suspects away from the battlefield.

According to him, for a start, US should cut back the number of drone strikes and be much more open about the reasons for the attacks it conducts and the process for reviewing them after the fact.

“It should also elaborate its criteria for determining who poses an imminent threat in a way that keeps attacks within tight limits. And, as US forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, it should keep in mind the possibility of declaring the war against al Qaeda to be over,” the expert noted.

In turn, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, urged “States to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to their lethal extra-territorial counter-terrorism operations and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of drones.” His colleague, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, urged concerted effort to maintain protections of the full range of international law in the face of drone use, including human rights and humanitarian standards, the applications of which have become problematic as countries functionally widened the definition of battle zones and appropriate targets in the fight against terrorism and insurgencies.

Meanwhile, Dixon Osburn, Director of Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program in an interview to news agency PenzaNews reminded that the United States has not answered clearly where and against whom the US is at war.

In his opinion, the answer to those questions could help determine the lawfulness of US actions.

“Even when at war, nations who use lethal force must abide the principles of distinction, proportionality and military objective. That is, nations may use lethal force against enemy forces rather than the civilian population (the principle of distinction). Any lethal strike must be proportionate to minimize civilian casualties. And any strikes must target military objectives like a bomb making facility not civilian targets like a market. Nations not at war may also use lethal force but only when the threat to the nation is imminent and there is no feasibility of capture or disrupting the attack by other means,” the expert said.

From his point of view, in a war against enemies that blend in with the civilian population like al Qaeda and the Taliban, extra care must be taken to ensure that lethal force is used against only those directly participating in hostilities.

“The United States has an obligation under international law to investigate strikes and provide remedy to the victims and their families where appropriate,” the analyst stressed.

He also noted that Human rights first called on the Obama administration to disclose the legal and policy guidance governing its drone operations, and to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into drone strikes and provide reparations where warranted.

“The president implemented Presidential Policy Guidance governing lethal targeting in May 2013 but has not made it public. The administration has also not made public the Department of justice legal memos justifying the operations,” Dixon Osburn added.

In turn, Anthony Glees, Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and director of its Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS), expressed the opinion that American drone program is effective and should not become more transparent, allowing terrorists to avoid the attacks.

“America will hunt down and if necessary kill those who want to attack the USA. That is the way it is, and I think America is right to take its defence seriously – it is the best, last hope for the idea of liberal democracy. All true democrats have an interest in seeing America prevail,” he said.

Answering the question whether terrorism can be addressed in a way that puts Pakistani civil society in danger, the expert stressed that those putting Pakistani civil society at risk are the Islamists and the Taleban, not the US.

“I do not believe that the purpose of the drone attacks is to ‘kill civilians’. It is true that the Taleban and Islamists do not fight in uniform. Therefore the Geneva Conventions do not come into play. But that does not mean the Taleban and the Islamists are ‘civilians’. It is a crime to kill civilians where there is an intention to kill civilians; that is a crime whether there is a war going on or not. Killing civilians intentionally during a war is a war crime. I do not believe President Obama is a war criminal,” Anthony Glees said.

In his opinion, the situation will not change, nor should it, until the Taleban and the Islamists are convinced they cannot win by using terrorism or violence against the USA and its allies.

However, Kamal Sido, the head of Middle East Department of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), noted that the killings of Pakistani civilians by the US drones is a violation of international law.

“We support all the efforts aimed at putting an end to this US practice. We cooperate with other German organizations, conduct a variety of activities, and write letters to Germany’s federal government to draw attention to the problem. Recently, the victims of such attacks, visited the United States and performed in front of Congress. I think that even some members of the US government will soon oppose the country’s plans for the further implementation of the program,” the expert said.

In his opinion, joint work of the American public organizations and international human rights groups can bring positive results.

“Of course, al Qaeda poses a threat to civilians of the United States, Europe, Russia and the Muslim countries. The Islamists are dangerous. However, it is necessary to respect human rights. All military actions should be carried out only under strict control,” said Kamal Sido.

Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars also stressed that there are many problems with the US drones program, which range from the humanitarian costs to the complete absence of transparency.

“I disagree, however, with the view that drones are illegal because they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. There is ample evidence that Pakistan has given approval to the US for drone strikes in recent years — recent evidence reveals that Pakistani officials have even helped the US identify targets,” the expert said.

He also noted that drone strikes were meant to target militants, not innocents.

“And while the civilian casualties are very much a problem, drone strikes are still much less dangerous to civil society and civilians in general than are other coercive tactics—such as special operations or more basic air strikes. Drone strikes kill fewer civilians than virtually any other use of force,” the analyst explained.

Meanwhile, in his opinion, the killers of civilians should bear the responsibility for their actions.

“However, in the context of drone strikes, it is hard to get any sort of conviction. Drones are very unconventional: weapons are launched by people thousands of miles away from the target. Also, the people who launch drone strikes are not purposely killing civilians — they are targeting people that they believe are militants. It would be hard to prove, in a court of law, that someone has committed a crime because an errant drone strike accidentally killed civilians,” Michael Kugelman noted.

Terrorism need not be addressed by force, but in fact, using force can make the problem worse, because it can radicalize more people and increase recruitment to militant causes, the expert believes.

“The best way to address terrorism in Pakistan is for Pakistan to improve its law enforcement. Pakistani militants need to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. In Pakistan, militants usually operate with impunity, and known killers live free. Better law enforcement and more robust legal action can reduce terrorism and keep civil society, and Pakistan’s population on the whole, much safer,” he said.

In turn, Hussain Nadim, Special Assistant to Federal Minister, Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms in Islamabad, noted that the Pakistan civil society had suffered massively because of the menace of terrorism.

“This problem can only be addressed if the funding sources of the militant organizations are cut down, and their operations halted. Unless certain elements within the state stop sponsoring the militant outfits, it is impossible to strike peace in the society,” he stated.

“Lack of justice, economic opportunity, and failure of the state in giving basic rights to people in the tribal areas coupled with massive arming up of tribals during the cold war has led an entire generation of Pashtuns and tribals to become militants and mercenaries. It has become a way of living in the tribal regions, and will take decades of development and education to bring back normality to the region,” the expert added.

According to him, the US drone program has been very effective in terms of killing the militants, and disrupting the terrorist activities in Pakistan over the years.

“Most importantly, the drone program by the US has helped the Pakistan military to reduce its costs of lives and money that would have incurred otherwise by conducting a massive operation in the tribal areas. So, in that connection drone program has been exceptionally effective. However, if it could be a bit more transparent, even within the intelligence community, that would make everything much less controversial,” Hussain Nadim noted.

From his point of view, it is more important to have an outstanding PR strategy that can justify the drone program, and make people aware of the advantages of using such a technology in a guerilla warfare than canceling or reducing the drone program.

“There is too much secrecy involved in the entire US drone campaign. It is not a program that is operated by the US and Pakistan government, instead its exclusively being operated by Pentagon and its counterpart in Pakistan, far away from any accountability and checks. Drones is only a seasonal and temporary weapon. Drone strategy has to be coupled with another tactic if the US and Pakistan are realistic about putting the militancy and terrorism to end,” the analyst concluded.

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