Rights Groups: Some US Drone Strikes are War Crimes (Oldroyd)

Rachel Oldroyd writes at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Leading human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised serious concerns about the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

The two organisations have conducted separate investigations into specific strikes to highlight how civilians are being killed. Such killings, they claim, are a violation of international law.

The groups say the US must investigate all drone attacks that kill civilians and those responsible for such ‘unlawful killings’ should be disciplined or prosecuted.

The reports follow calls last week by two UN experts for more disclosure of information about drone deaths.

A report by Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, called for nations that operate armed drones to be more transparent and ‘publicly disclose’ how they use them.

This was followed by the findings of Ben Emmerson, a British barrister and UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, who urged the US to ‘release its own data on the level of civilian casualties’ caused by drone strikes.

Amnesty’s report focuses on drone strikes in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch has concentrated on airstrikes, including those conducted by drones, in Yemen.

The Amnesty report, Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan, names a group of 18 labourers, including a 14-year-old boy, killed in a drone attack on Pakistan in July 2012. This is the first time that all victims of the strike have been identified.

The group of men had been gathered for their evening meal when the first strike hit. In July field research by the Bureau found that this strike was then followed by another attack that killed rescuers trying to retrieve bodies. This was confirmed by Amnesty’s research.

The report states: ‘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.’

Over nine months Amnesty researchers reviewed 45 incidents from the past 18 months in North Waziristan, the area hit most frequently by recent CIA-operated drone strikes. As well as the attack on the group of labourers the report also points to another drone strike in October 2012 which killed a 68-year-old grandmother who was looking after her grandchildren. The death of Mamana Bibi in this attack had already been highlighted by the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project, which records all named casualties of US drone strikes in Pakistan. ‘Bibi’ means ‘grandmother’ in Urdu and Pashtun, and much of the earlier reporting on this case refers to her as ‘Bibi Mamana’.

Related story: Bibi Mamana

Amnesty researchers spoke to Pakistani intelligence sources who said that a local Taliban fighter had used a satellite phone on a road close to where Mamana Bibi was killed about 10 minutes before the strike. The sources said they were not aware of the reason for the old woman’s killing but assumed it was related to the Taliban fighter’s proximity to her.

However Amnesty found no other evidence of militants in the area at the time of the attack, and the site of the drone strike was nearly 1,000ft away from the nearest road.

Mustafa Qadri, who led the research said: ‘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.’

The Human Rights Watch report, Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda, looks at attacks in Yemen and similarly highlights incidents where civilians were killed. It looks at six strikes that together killed 82 people, including at least 57 civilians.

The strikes investigated included a a drone-assisted airstrike on a passenger van which killed 12 civilians. Human Rights Watch spoke to 23-year-old Ahmad al-Sabooli, whose father, mother and 10-year-old sister was killed.

A demand for transparency
The reports stress the need for more transparency around drone attacks, particularly in relation to the victims killed.

Amnesty’s call for transparency focuses on the difficulties faced by the families of drone victims in getting compensation. The report argues that the lack of disclosure about drone strikes means that victims are able to access neither justice nor recompense.

‘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… What hope for redress can there be for victims of the drone attacks and their families when the USA won’t even acknowledge its responsibility for particular strikes?’ the report asks.

More than a year after the death of the grandmother Mamana Bibi, for example, her family has not received any acknowledgement that she was killed by a US drone, let alone any compensation, says Amnesty.

The human rights group also expresses concern that the Pakistan government is failing to protect and enforce the rights of victims of drone strikes. It says: ‘Pakistan has a duty to independently and impartially investigate all drone strikes in the country and ensure access to justice and reparation for victims of violations.’

A question of names

The Amnesty report highlights some of the problems faced by researchers reporting on casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Amnesty International names 18 labourers whom its field researchers found were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on July 6 2012. Previous research by legal campaign group Reprieve had already named eight of the 18 people reported to have died in this strike.

However the two organisations have been independently given different names by people they spoke to in Pakistan. Only the 14-year-old identified as Saleh Khan is named by both Reprieve and Amnesty.

Furthermore independent research by the Bureau found that those killed included alleged militants and ‘local tribesmen’, although it did not find specific claims of civilian casualties.

Amnesty’s Qadri told the Bureau: ‘Our research is based on eye witness testimony. The people we spoke to knew the people who were killed.

‘We have done the best we can. The authorities both in Pakistan and the US need to now show us what they know.’

The Bureau’s Naming the Dead project, launched last month, aims to record the names of casualties of the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan in an attempt to bring more transparency to this under-reported conflict. The data is regularly updated, even when there is confusion, or more than one name provided.

The Bureau’s data suggests at least 2,500 people have died in these attacks including more than 400 civilians, and yet only one in five of the casualties can so far be identified.


Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted in Drone,FATA,Yemen | 22 Responses | Print |

22 Responses

  1. Mustapha Qadri appeared on the PBS News Hour this evening and continually flogged the killing of the 68 year old grandmother, Mamana Bibi. She was the only named example he used, and he acted as if he were certain her killing was a “war crime.” Qadri offered no possibility that her death was a mistake or that the drone was meant for a terrorist and inadvertently hit her.

    Amnesty’s report suggests that those that were interviewed wanted to reveal the killings, thus indicating that they were a self-selected group with an agenda. In short, Mr. Qadri and the Amnesty report cannot be considered completely unbiased, and the killing of the 68 year old grandmother alone is a pretty thin reed upon which to base a charge of a “war crime.”

    • My former understanding of the law was that if someone killed an innocent person that was a crime. Circumstances dictated how serious the charge would be: First degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter or other. Now that the United States conforms to the concept of exceptionalism and its authoritarian followers agree, the law is some quaint anachronism to be ignored except when dissidents dissent. Then the Empire invokes its credo of “nobody is above the law.” People who still adhere to the concept of what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong consider that shibboleth to be unadulterated BS.

      • @Bill:

        What if the Cuban military had initiated a drone attack in Miami attempting to kill one of the militant anti-Castro exile group leaders that he believes were culpable in the 1976 Cubana Air bombing? What if that attack had killed innocent Americans?

        The fact the person was killed by accident cannot justify the legitimacy of drone strikes in the first place. The system violates international law.

        The concerns of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch should be heeded by U.S. leaders.

      • You are confusing murder with an unfortunate civilian casualty resulting from a military action. The US is at war with Al-Qaeda and affiliated militant organizations, and international law and the Laws of War apply, not the US Criminal Code.

        • “… an unfortunate civilian casualty …”

          The singular article and noun are definitely in error.

          And the way the US has conducted that war has contributed to the expansion of Al-Qaida from a little corner in Afghanistan across south Asia to the Middle East and northern Africa. You’re doing a heck of a job, guys.

      • An “understanding” of the law that manages not to include the existence of war as a legal reality, the distinction between deliberately targeting people vs. accidental deaths, or the comprehension that neither of these doctrines have the slightest relationship to “American exceptionalism,” but are recognized as applying to all countries involved in armed conflict, is an understanding that you are better off without.

    • “Questions over US drone attacks that President Obama needs to resolve: The US cannot brush off charges of unlawful killings, claiming it is merely protecting US interests, without risking revenge attacks” by Simon Tisdall – link to theguardian.com

  2. Only an ignorant idiot doesn’t know the drone strikes are a war crime.
    Of course we are war criminals; since WWII, we have documented evidence of our war crimes; Gen. Curtis Lemay admitted as much regarding our nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    What disturbs me most is the general ignorance of history among U.S. citizens.
    Our history is not pretty or flattering.

    • “Only an ignorant idiot doesn’t know the drone strikes are a war crime.”

      Those familiar with international law and the Law of War would respectfully disagree with the above-cited statement. Under both legal protocols, drone strikes targeting an Unlawful Enemy Combatant are entirely legal. In such a drone strike, the inadvertent killing of civilians is not considered illegal and a “war crime” as long as appropriate measures were taken to minimize civilian casualties, and as long as such casualties are proportionate to the military objective achieved.

      • This is vague at best, and swallows whole a good deal of the government’s line concerning our so-called security. The whole notion of an “unlawful” enemy combatant is vague and dubious at best, one suspects intentionally so.

        Whose legal protocols? Who wrote them, and why? What were there motives, and who were the signatories?

        Equally vague is the term “appropriate measures” – just what are these precisely? Who decides? How are the implemented?

        “Proportionate to the military objective achieved”? Fine, what is that objective? And how do we know if it’s proportionate? And to whom? All of this needs a great deal more detailed argument to be in the least bit compelling.

        “Entirely legal” – as though there have been no legal challenges or questions posed. “Entirely” really needs qualification; it is not ex cathedra holy writ.

        • That terms such as “Unlawful Enemy Combatant,” “Security,” “Appropriate Measures,” and “Proportionate to Military Objective Achieved,” appear vague to you, Grumpy Without Coffee, demonstrates a lack of precision in your cognitive understanding, not vagueness in the terms themselves. These terms have been used in defining “Just War” doctrine, as well as in International Law and the Law of War.

          Moreover, your questions regarding International Law and the Law of War: “Whose legal protocols? Who wrote them, and why? What were there motives, and who were the signatories?,” demonstrate a misunderstanding of how International Law and the Law of War developed. Neither consists of a set of laws, such as the US Criminal Code, combined in one volume and signed by adherents. They developed through centuries of precedent, much like English Common Law. They are contained in a wide variety of documents, from the various Geneva Conventions to the UN Charter. Together, they comprise the protocols of what we refer to as International Law and the Law of War.

      • Aside from that cramped and narrow and dishonest John Yoo-style reading-out of “international law and the Law of War,” bearing in mind that “the law” in that whole arena is subject to US claims of convenient (in)applicability (including reserving all discretion, and not even being signatories to a lot of the salient documents), and that of course it’s possible to come to the exact opposite conclusion with a much clearer logical pathway, and conscience too — dare one point out that not even the “tests” of “legality” prescribed here (“as long as appropriate measures were taken to minimize civilian casualties, and as long as such casualties are proportionate to the military objective achieved”) can even arguably be said to have been met? Or maybe the puny “military objectives,” very questionably “achieved” except by limiting definitions, when measured “proportionately” to the expenditures, let alone the significance of results, lead to “justification” on the ground that only a “puny” number of civilians have been killed.

        Completely ignoring the damage done to any hope of actually advancing any kind of “international law and order,” by the arrogance, and invitation to emulation by other nasty, greedy, dishonest, sneaky, violent humans, of “our” rulership. But then the whole nub of the Game is domination, extraction, decimation, from a nice safe smug smarmy position, immune to consequences — right? All part of “the national interest” in “maximum freedom of action,” right? ‘Cuz we cain’t do nothin’ else, right? And besides, when it really starts hitting the fan, “I’ll be gone and you’ll be gone,” right? Comfortably consequence-free?

    • “What disturbs me most is the general ignorance of history among U.S. citizens.”

      Not only that, but the indifference to immorality by people who are otherwise decent citizens is bizarre. If we applied the principles defined during the Nuremberg trials to the leaders who got the war on Iraq into the history books they would be candidates for banishment, exile, prison or worse. Instead, they are distinguished celebrities, some of whom are promoting more illegal and immoral wars.

    • Arn, could this ignorant idiot kindly beg you to cite the international law that defines the used of unmanned aircraft to be war crime?


      • More important than the “law” is the moral imperative that is just as absent in the Obama administration as it was in the Bush cabal.

  3. Gee, I guess we can dismiss the notion that blasting people with Hellfires launched from our increasingly autonomous Global Interoperable Network-Centric Battlespace Procured And Turned Loose “Terminator” devices might have elements of “illegality” and “war crime” status attached to them, because the credibility of all those who have pointed out the idiocy and frank badness of the “policy” and the arrogant Imperialism and freakish hypermilitarization behind it hinges on and is destroyed by Bill’s characterization of one comment about one “68-year-old grandmother” who happened to be on one person’s mind when interviewed.

    And what is that noise about how those wanting to report and reveal the killings are a sneaky, suspect, “self-selected group with an agenda”? So the report “cannot be considered completely unbiased”? How about the reports generated by the guys who run the drone and Special Ops programs? Proven not only biased, but deceptive and full of lies? Put that with your recent contention that “security elements” of the “regime” in Pakistan were in cahoots with our war managers, so any complaints, about “the US” fracturing Pakistani sovereignty or making murderous trouble via droning ‘n stuff, by elected officials or other parts of the executive there, are thereby rendered meaningless…

    There’s a thin reed waving in the wind here, but it’s not the killing and reporting of the death of Manama Bibi.

    But don’t let any of that deter you from trying to distract the rest of us and steer the discussion off the edge, while persisting in trying to make a case for our present and past rulers and their short-term-personally-profitable if idiotic games…

  4. seriously ?
    our government is so lacking in credible spokesmen that we send out Jim Clapper to deny France’s charges of illegal phone taps ?

    • He’s proven adept at Ollie-ism — able to look grim and sincere and lie baldly and with a straight face…

  5. The U.S. doesn’t want to kill civilians; nonetheless, civilians get killed. I doubt that this will stop, and the U.S. will not be prosecuted. Look at how Dick and Bush escaped any prosecution. An imperial power gets away with murder.

    • When it comes to killing civilians and that huge military part of our Imperium, I kind of question the “U.S.” personification. Maybe many US citizens, both civilians and many GIs, don’t want to have Our Forces kill “civilians” (though they have no problem killing, or nodding at the killing of, “Unlawful Enema Combatants” or other fellow humans, referred to as “bugsplat” by the cognoscenti, whether fellow citizens or not, for whom the propaganda groundwork “supporting” that killing has been well laid, or just out of indifference.)

      The fact remains indisputable, that for all the thin patina of red-white-and-blue high ideals we let ourselves believe forms our true colors, there are plenty of folks among “us” who think nothing of killing others, for sport as well as “in war” as we want to think of it, the hot “Call of Duty” combat. Spend some time with youtube helmet-cam and Apache and Hellfire videos if you disagree, for just one source. When stressed and threatened GIs are sent on fools’ errands into other people’s terrain, and can’t easily tell “civilians” from “Taliban” and other fine distinctions, or are sitting at the pilot’s console of a Reaper or Predator, it’s all too easy to just “light ’em up,” and there are more than sufficient examples to show this ain’t always just some “fog of war” savagery, but callous and intentional whoopery.

      The cynical “generals” and rulers who run all this know very well that “we” are nothing like our comforting propaganda tells us we are. Far from it. So they, as you say, “get away with murder,” because the legalists and “Realists” define such killing as “not murder,” and most of the rest of us are befuddled and/or morally compromised ourselves. With no consequences, so nothing will change.

  6. Our president and others have stressed that if American and Israeli security is threatened we and the Israelis have a right to aggressive attacks against those perceived threats. We also need to stress that the right to retaliate does not apply to other nations whose security we and the Israelis have placed in jeopardy.

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