The growing and largely unchallenged use of armed drones by the United States to carry out extrajudicial assassinations and bombing campaigns across the globe amount to possible war crimes and need to be stopped.
That's the message from two of the world's most prominent human rights groups, who on Tuesday demanded an end to the secrecy and unaccountable nature of the US drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Bolstered by new reports from each group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch held a joint news conference to present their research and called on the international community to come together in opposition to the 'unlawful' and woefully destructive trend of cross-border US drone attacks—"some of which could even amount to war crimes"—that have killed countless civilians in recent years and done more to promote terrorism across the world than suppress it.
Amnesty says its report, “'Will I Be Next?' US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” is one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the US drone program from a human rights perspective and focuses on the area where the highest percentage of the US drone bombing campaign has occurred, the tribal areas in Pakistan along the Afghan border.
And Human Rights Watch's report, "'Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda': The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen," focuses on covert action in Yemen, including six targeted assassinations that took place there, one in 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013.
As Rolling Stone's John Knefel points out:
While there have been reports on the drone and so-called targeted killing programs before, this is the first time that major NGOs have made such a dramatic statement about specific U.S. strikes. It's also the first time organizations of this size have done their own fieldwork and research, allowing them to make such clear accusations.
Both reports stress that until the legal and policy frameworks are declassified, it is impossible to assess the legality of individual strikes or the programs at large. At the center of the debate is the ambiguity over whether the U.S. is operating in a law of war context (also known as international humanitarian law) or a human rights law framework, which covers a state's obligations in peacetime and is more restrictive than the law of war.
Taken together, the reports paint a harrowing picture of family members who lost love ones from US attacks and the communities which live under constant threat and fear from the buzz of drones overhead or the missiles that come seemingly from out of nowhere. In that context, the reports attempt to explain why the lawless nature of the killings and aerial bombardments have been so deeply destabilizing to these already fragile regions.
“The US says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the lead author of her group's report. “Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Both reports say the US drone program has been allowed to metastasize without any oversight from the international community and argue that the US has staked out deeply troubling legal arguments in claiming that the "world is a battlefield" when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda or other perceived terrorist threats.
“Secrecy surrounding the drones program gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law," said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher. "It’s time for the USA to come clean about the drones program and hold those responsible for these violations to account.”
According to Amnesty:
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 addition to the threat of US drone strikes, people in North Waziristan are frequently caught between attacks by armed groups and Pakistan’s armed forces. The local population lives under constant fear of inescapable violence by all sides.
The US drone program has added to local suffering, with people in the region now also living in terror of death from US drones hovering in the skies day and night.
“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 Qadri.
In looking at specific drone attacks in Yemen, where the US claims a legitimate battle between itself and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or AQAP), HRW found that none of drone attacks they investigated met even the "US policy guidelines for targeted killings that Obama disclosed publicly in May 2013". From the report:
Obama said the US conducts strikes only against individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people,” when there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” and when capture is not feasible. The strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch pre-date Obama’s disclosure of the policy guidelines, but the White House has said the rules either were either “already in place” or being “transitioned into place.” [...]
However, the hostilities between the US and these groups do not appear to meet the intensity required under the laws of war to amount to an armed conflict.
According to HRW, the US government has carried out hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2001. In Yemen, the US is estimated to have conducted 81 targeted killing operations, one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. Research groups report that at least 473 people have been killed in these strikes, the majority of them combatants but many of them civilians.
But as Amnesty's Qadri asks: “What hope for redress can there be for victims of drone attacks and their families when the USA won’t even acknowledge its responsibility for particular strikes?”
And looking at specific strike accounts in Pakistan, Amnesty found that government reports over who or who was not "a combatant" often misapplied the term, reporting:
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 labourers, or an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all, let alone posing an imminent threat to the United States,” said Qadri.
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 two human rights groups are demanding that the US and international bodies take up their research in order to launch their own investigations into possible war crimes, breaches of international law, or human rights abuses. In addition, Amnesty released this specific list of demands, calling on:
The US authorities to:
- Publicly disclose the facts and legal basis for drone strikes carried out in Pakistan and information about any investigation into killings by US drones.
- Ensure prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe that drone strikes resulted in unlawful killings.
- Bring those responsible for unlawful drone strikes to justice in public and fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.
- Ensure that victims of unlawful drone strikes, including family members of victims of unlawful killings, have effective access to justice, compensation and other remedies.
The Pakistani authorities to:
- Provide adequate access to justice and reparations for victims of US drone strikes and attacks by Pakistan forces, and seek reparations and other remedies for drone strikes from the US authorities.
- Bring to justice, in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty, individuals responsible for unlawful killings and other human rights abuses in North Waziristan. This should include US drone strikes, attacks by the Pakistan armed forces, or groups like the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.
- Publicly disclose information on all US drone strikes that the Pakistani authorities are aware of, including casualties and all assistance provided to victims.
The international community to:
- Oppose US drone strikes and other killings that violate international law and urge the USA and Pakistan to take the measures outlined above. States should officially protest and pursue remedies under international law when lethal force is unlawfully used by the USA or other states.
- Refrain from participating in any way in US drone strikes that violate international law, including by sharing intelligence or facilities.