Drone Warfare

Human rights groups say civilian drone deaths violate international law

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Rafeequl Rehman and his children showing a picture of Mamana Bibi, killed by a drone in Pakistan. (Image: Amnesty International)

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 Pakistannames 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.