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.

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”