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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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