Amnesty International: US may be guilty of war crimes in Pakistan

Several reports released this week are adding pressure on the US to disclose information about its deadly drone programme and civilian casualties.

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? 

A Raven surveillance drone from Marine base perimeter on March 21, 2009 near the remote village of Baqwa, Afghanistan.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood