UN Official: States Must Not Hide Civilian Drone Deaths

Phyllis Bennis: "This report is the beginning of chipping away at US impunity."

Increasing drone strikes are causing "disproportionate civilian casualties," and the U.S. and other states must not be permitted to continue hiding this trail of death from the public, charged a UN official in a recently released report.

"This report is the beginning of chipping away at U.S. impunity," said Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at Institute for Policy Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams.

In a damning 21-page report, UN special rapporteur on human rights Ben Emmerson identifies 30 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza in which civilians were killed, injured, or threatened by drone strikes.

This includes a December 2013 U.S. drone strike on a recent wedding procession in Yemen near the city of Rad'a that left 12 people dead and at least 15 wounded -- an attack that the U.S. and Yemeni governments initially claimed had killed "militants."

While the U.S. is leading the covert drone wars in all of these countries except for Gaza, and is backing that effort, the Obama administration has refused to acknowledge the full extent of the attacks, refused to publicly identify the people killed in drone attacks, and repeated the unverified claim that civilian deaths have been minimal.

Yet, data for 2013 shows that drone strikes in Afghanistan accounted for 40 percent of civilian deaths by pro-government forces, marking a three-fold increase since 2012, the report notes.

While civilian drone deaths appear to have decreased in Pakistan in 2013, they are increasing in Yemen, the report notes -- echoing what experts have pointed out is an apparent U.S. shift from Pakistan to Yemen. According to the report, Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi previously stated that "specific drone strikes are not pre-approved, but instead such strikes are 'generally permitted' pursuant to an unwritten agreement concluded between the United States and former President Abdullah Saleh."

The report outlines numerous civilian drone deaths in Gaza, including a November 2012 strike on farmland near a house north of Gaza City that killed a father, his 12-year-old daughter, and his 19-year-old son as they picked spearmint. The attack was allegedly carried out by Israeli forces, the report notes.

Victims and survivors of drone strikes have long demanded accountability. "Drone strikes in Pakistan have devastated my family and brought only fear and suffering to my community. Yet we still have had no explanation as to why they happened, and who was responsible," said Rafiq Rehman, the son of Mammana Bibian -- who was killed by an October 2012 strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan that was outlined in the report. "I still hope that we might one day see justice and an end to these catastrophic strikes in Pakistan."

Emmerson insists that states must actively investigate these drone deaths, and if they refuse, provide an explanation why. However, he falls short of calling for action by the International Criminal Court.

Yet, Bennis says the report is still a significant step forward. "The importance is this is the first internationally UN sanctioned investigation into the concept and practice of drone warfare as the U.S. has been practicing it for the last ten years or so," she said.

"It is up to civil society to use this report as an instrument and take it further," Bennis added.


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