A report released by Amnesty International today has condemned the US’s secrecy surrounding its drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and says that the US could be guilty of violating international law and committing war crimes. It cites NGO and Pakistani government sources claiming that the US launched between 330 and 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013, killing between 400 and 900 civilians and injuring 600.
The report calls on the US to meet its obligations under international law by carrying out full and independent inquiries into the killing of civilians documented in Amnesty’s report. More specifically it accused the US of the arbitrary deprivation of life, and said that to avoid breaking international law the US authorities need to show that they only use deadly force to protect life, in situations where the use of force is proportionate, and where non-lethal methods are not possible.
Amnesty’s efforts to investigate drone strikes placed both their own researchers and those they were interviewing at risk, and they were only able to travel to South Waziristan, not to North Waziristan, where many attacks have taken place. There was also a fear that local people would be coerced into giving inaccurate information, or even that they could be killed for disclosing details of drone attacks.
This struggle to access information about the human cost of drones highlights how damaging the US’s secrecy is, and how voiceless the civilians caught up in a battle between militant groups, the Pakistani government and international forces, are. Amnesty’s interviews revealed the human cost of US drone programmes: the families grieving relatives, or suffering the loss of their main breadwinner, and the civilians too scared to pray in mosques or gather in large groups for fear of drone attacks. In this political climate, few civilians are able to seek justice or compensation.
One problem flagged up in the report is the US’s repeated use of “signature strikes”, when the identities of individuals or groups are not known but their activities appear to fit a pattern deemed suspicious. It also needs to justify its attacks on those who may be members of armed groups but are not participating in armed conflicts, and its “follow-up strikes” that have killed rescue workers.
The Amnesty Report has been published amid growing pressure on the US to justify its position. Today, Human Rights Watch has also published a report on drone strikes in Yemen, which it argues violate international law. Both reports follow closely on the publication of a report by the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, who called on the US to declassify its information on drone strikes.
Interestingly, the Economist this week has published an article suggesting that some civilians in South Waziristan support drone strikes in their region, arguing that they are effective at killing militants, and are preferable to artillery attacks by Pakistan’s military. This doesn’t, however, mean that there is any less need for increased openness from the US.
If the US is right and drone strikes are the least bad way of containing militant operations in lawless parts of the world, it needs to start producing evidence that this is true. Supporters of drone attacks claim that drones are able to carry out better surveillance, and are more accurate than conventional weaponry, but this is no use if they are deployed indiscriminately against people who are engaging in so-called suspicious behaviour – like rescuing their friends from the rubble of previous attacks. But how many more reports will have to be published before the US starts accepting legal responsibility for its secretive and deadly strikes?