Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Blast U.S. Drone Strikes

New reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch challenge the legality of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Boys gather near the wreckage of car destroyed last year by a U.S. drone air strike targeting suspected al Qaeda militants in Azan of the southeastern Yemeni province of Shabwa, Feb. 3, 2013.

Drones, as Washington’s prevailing wisdom goes, are the least messy weapon to deploy on a diffuse and disorganized global battlefield. They can surgically target terrorist organizations, depriving them of key leaders with, in theory, little collateral damage. After taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama quietly expanded the use of drones, which began under President George W. Bush, targeting hundreds of suspected terrorists, mostly in Pakistan and Yemen.

While there has been skepticism about the use of drones from the beginning, Obama’s drone policies were subject to a more heated discussion the past year. The legality and effects of drone strikes have been litigated in Congress (domestic ramifications at least), in scholarly articles, both pro, and con, and most importantly by Obama, who discussed the issue in the most public detail in a speech at the National Defense University in May.

During that speech, where Obama called for an end to the War on Terror as we know it, the president argued that drones are far more precise than conventional airpower or missiles and that invasions of soldiers lead to “a torrent of unintended consequences.” Obama’s overall message was that drone strikes lead to fewer civilian casualties, which translates into less civilian outrage.

But drone strikes do lead to civilian casualties, which the president acknowledged in the speech. “There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.”

Two such reports were released today, one from Amnesty International detailing U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and another from Human Rights Watch, which attempts to catalog recent civilian drone casualties in Yemen. Both call into question the legality of the U.S. drone program and raise the specter of American war crimes. Amnesty International conducted 60 interviews with families, eyewitnesses and residents in Pakistan’s tribal region of North Waziristan, considered a hotbed of militant activity. Human Rights Watch interviewed 90 people to investigate six drone strikes in Yemen, one from 2009 and five from 2012-13.

Both reports include gruesome anecdotes to illustrate what’s missing from most of the numbers-heavy policy discussions. The Amnesty International report on Pakistan–titled “Will I Be Next?”–leads with the dramatic story of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi who was killed by a drone missile while tending to her crops in North Waziristan. According to the report, Bibi was blown to pieces in front of her grandchildren. “I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards,” Bibi’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela later described. “It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”

Human Rights Watch’s report on Yemen contains an equally detailed account from August 2012, where five men were blown to bits by multiple drone-fired missiles behind a mosque in the village of Khashamir in southeastern Yemen. Three of the men were identified by Yemen’s Defense Ministry as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but the other two were not. Villagers later told a Human Rights watch researcher than one was a cleric who had preached against al-Qaeda.

Both stories are tragic. In every war, civilians are caught between the two sides. But even if the August 2012 drone strike did succeed in killing three members of AQAP, it also killed the kind of people the U.S. hopes to secure as partners in a fight against terrorism.

Human Rights Watch framed their conclusions in a series of recommendations to the U.S. and Yemeni governments. At the top of that list is that the U.S.  government release key facts about the drone program—the number of militants and civilians killed, the memoranda from the Justice Department outlining the administration’s interpretation of operational law—that so far have been withheld. At the moment, the American public—and the rest of the world—is kept largely in the dark. The organization recommends that the government of Yemen ensure that any targeted killings–by the U.S. or Yemeni forces–take all possible precautions to minimize danger to civilians, and that when civilians are harmed, families receive “prompt and meaningful compensation” for any loss of life or damage to property.

Based on the drone attacks Amnesty international examined in Pakistan, the organization found massive uncertainty, which “arises from the US authorities’ deliberate policy of refusing to disclose information or even acknowledge responsibility for particular attacks,” the report concludes. “What is certain from Amnesty International’s research, however, is that the cases in this report raise serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.”

One of the largest problems–and both reports make this case–is that it’s difficult to determine how successful, damaging or disastrous any of the hundreds of drone strikes over the past decade have been because the U.S. government does not release details about targeting, identification, precision, or local response. Even pinpointing the number of strikes is impossible because official figures are classified, but analysis from the New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan, there have been 365 strikes, which have killed between 1,611 and 2767 militants, with between 258 and 307 civilians killed. In Yemen, the organization tallies 92 drone strikes, resulting in between 582 and 768 militants killed, alongside approximately 65 civilians.

While the reports provide devastating details and draw attention to the debate, stories of innocent people hurt in drone strikes “don’t add substantively to knowledge of the drone program nor do they alter the standard line about needing more transparency and access to medical help,” Joshua Foust, a commentator on U.S. counter-terrorism policy and former fellow at the American Security Project, told TIME in an email. Transparency in the drone program faces two main obstacles, Foust says: First, the drone politics of a country like Pakistan are messy, with the government quietly supporting the strikes (including feeding the U.S. intelligence), then publicly condemning them and whipping public opinion into a frenzy.

Second, there is little political incentive in the U.S. government to further declassify drone policy, and there are virtually no political consequences for the Obama Administration continuing as they have for years. Polls show Americans have few qualms with the U.S. deploying drones overseas. Until that changes, Foust says, “none of the other calls for redress or openness will come to pass.”

The reports also touch – though not implicitly – on a far murkier question that Obama and future commanders-in-chief should consider: are drone strikes the best solution in the long term? Drones are arguably the most effective way to rid the world of terrorists today, but do they create more terrorists tomorrow? In Khashamir, in eastern Yemen, the Human Rights Watch report explains that nearly everyone in the village has seen pictures of the two men killed alongside the al Qaeda members. The images, the report describes, “show the men’s bodies charred and in pieces,” and relatives had to identify them by what remained of body parts and bits of clothing. “Now when villagers see these images,” one relative said, “they think of America.”

69 comments
gornisht
gornisht

Must we always hear from these losers? what really do they contribute? Why should US service people risk their lives, when a drone can do the job? If doing away with scum is the result of a drone attack, so be it!

JohnRobinson
JohnRobinson

“Intelligence is capital...information is the sine qua non for victory. It had to be zealously collected, meticulously analyzed, rapidly disseminated, and efficaciously acted on. Without it no anti-terrorist operation could succeed.”  Colonel Yves Godard.  Godard was one of the architects of the French counterterrorist strategy that won the Battle of Algiers, in 1957 the most successful counterterrorist operation ever conducted.  “A Nasty Business”, The Atlantic, Bruce Hoffman, 2002.  This should be required reading for anyone wanting to comment here.

"Naturally one worries—after all, one is inflicting pain and discomfort and indignity on other human beings ... [but] society has got to find a way of protecting itself ... and it can only do so if it has good information. If you have a close-knit society which doesn't give information then you've got to find ways of getting it. Now the softies of the world complain—but there is an awful lot of double talk about it. If there is to be discomfort and horror inflicted on a few, is this not preferred to the danger and horror being inflicted on perhaps a million people?" Then the is the matter of Unlawful Combatant as defined by The Law of War.


Linda Gilkerson
Linda Gilkerson

There is a lot more that we are not being told from media....

GalacticCannibal
GalacticCannibal

So where are the girls....... Locked up in their homes ...Pathetic ..

These medieval countries need to get into the 21 st. century.

schuin911
schuin911

USA needs to make a better drone!  ones that turn into a hollow point bullet in the last 10 feet.  

if the target can kill innocent people and use any old religion to justify it, then that target deserves to die.  fight these mystic misfits with the same tactics they use: terror-physics! 

FujiCondor1
FujiCondor1

Obama sheds crocodile tears for kids killed at Sandy Hook.  But when Obama drone strikes 300 Pakistani children, he doesn't bat an eye.    Take a wild guess which one forwards his political agenda and which one doesn't. 

Jaguar6cy
Jaguar6cy

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch make no mention and take no position on mass suicide bombers or individual beheadings by knife, or pervasive Individual Explosive Devices, all of which are the preferred weapons of Muslim fighters in all the same conflicts, worldwide.  The conclusion is apparent.  Those methods are acceptable to both organizations and to their supporters worldwide.  Their complete silence is deafening.  They are deeply biased and deceptive propaganda organs.  And they clearly prefer and support terrorist wars against humanity by their acquiescence.

bl
bl

The targets of these attacks are armed forces with the stated intention of making war on not only the US, but the very idea of civilization, as we have just seen in Kenya, as Malala Yousafzai has made it obvious.  It is not a small criminal gang.  It is a war.

And the drone attacks cause some civilian casualties... possibly.  Most of these civilians are in direct support of Al Queda forces- they feed them and house them and supply them.  They don't wear uniforms, but then, neither does Al Queda, Al Shabbab, or the Taliban.  So how do we know, really?

We are up against an enemy that refuses to distinguish between civilian and military... except where it serves their purposes.  Let's not be drawn into that nonsense.  Let's see a uniform on every Al Queda member, as per the Geneva Conventions.  Then we can worry about who is a civilian.

Karl
Karl

It's interesting to see which stories draw thousands of comments and which a few dozen. A story about unmanned robot planes killing people, too often women and boys at twilight gathering firewood as they have done for millennia, instead of men we don't want to live for whatever reason, is apparently of not much interest to your readers. But I just left a comment on a different story with about 2500 comments, the one about the French being upset with our spying. Apparently not many residents of the USA, (I've stopped writing citizens because so many of us aren't citizens any more that now the word has taken on a new meaning than it had when I was a teen half a century ago)are concerned at all, if vaguely aware, that the United States is killing people in half a dozen countries we are not at war with. The world has come full circle, the United States is becoming what most Americans before WWII would have considered anathema, a betrayal of what it means to be an "American". Things change, and so many changes are sweet at first and only later do you realize that they have led you somewhere you shouldn't have gone. And I'm talking about a lot more than robot planes killing people in exotic dress at twilight in strange and foreign lands, I'm talking about the Human experiment in civilization of the last ten thousand years that from all appearances seems to be taking Mankind to a cliff from which gravity will pull it down.

Attiq Zafar
Attiq Zafar

it will be an imprudent act as the victimised nations are very impotent and totally unable to match the technology the US possess.

meddevguy
meddevguy

No excuse for killing anyone, but in WWII we killed 60,000,000 mostly civilians -- because to take out one military site, we had to take out a city because of the inaccuracies in bombs. Now we know who, where and generally get our single man. If that military leader knows he is a potential target because of past targets and still keeps civilians close to him, he bears a lot of the responsibility.

The targeted militant's job is to kill as many civilians as possible. Again, no excuse for killing, but who rejoices for, who stands up for the civilians the militant did not get to murder?

Yoshi
Yoshi

Not being at war with the countries we use the drones in, I just refer to it as "murder".

George Bell
George Bell

Why did he get a Nobel peace prize again?

Bluhorizon
Bluhorizon

The drone is a asymmetric warfare terror weapon and the people whom it terrorizes the most are the people for whom it is intended.  These include Muslim terrorists al over the world who are engaged in jihad. They have good reason to mount a campaign against the drones although of course they themselves are far more brutal and think nothing of murdering noncombatants, whom they call "martyrs."  

Clearly they have good reason to hate the drones, which are obviously doing a pretty good job of killing them. For protection they surround themselves with their families and neighbors, hoping our superior morality will deter us--this is after spending the day laying mines to blow up the next passing bus.  

The people who oppose the drones, like those in Amnesty, think they are taking the high ground and talk about the inevitable civilian collateral damage.  But we all know that collateral damage not withstanding, the drone is the single most effective weapon against the Taliban and their ilk in other countries.  in fact Amnesty and their friends are working as hard as possible to help Islamic terrorism win.  They are in effect an auxiliary of the Taliban.  So, when you hear these Grandmothers from Hell talk about civilian deaths at least be clear who will win if they win.



Ahu
Ahu

A: Why was a guy who "preached against al-Qaeda" hanging out behind a mosque with Al-Qaeda members?

B: These people hate America, why would they not fabricate?

Carolyn Pierce
Carolyn Pierce

I do not understand how the U.S. (my country, which I dearly love) can preach peace but go on a killing spree. The fact that our current POTUS was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (what a joke!), yet expanded drone attacks, justs adds insult to injury. "Executive Order 12333 of 1981 explicitly prohibits the CIA from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations" [source: cia.gov], but it's legal for the Defense Department to murder civilians through this drone program? Someone please explain that reasoning to me.

JakobStagg
JakobStagg

Now we know what happens to "mass murders"  who don't kill themselves. The government hires them to commit mass murder.

Junaid Akbar Sandhu
Junaid Akbar Sandhu

The victimized states may initiate defensive strikes against the United States because it is clearly mentioned in UNDHCR known as self defense strikes.

kkbaja2002
kkbaja2002

Rawlings claims that "both stories are tragic," and none would disagree. But the total number of innocent civilians killed, per his tragic stories above, is three:  the 68-year old Bibi, in the one instance, and 2 of the 5 in Khashamir who were not members of  Al-Qaeda. Wow, shame on Obama, 3 innocent civilians. Compare that with somewhere between 60,000 and 134,000 civilian deaths as a result of the Iraq war initiated by Bush-Cheney (check out Wikipedia, Casualties of the Iraq war).  Let's keep things in perspective, children. 

Saeed Ismael
Saeed Ismael

How does it feel if other nations treat our civilians with such weapon? We need to focus on moral application of force. Peace out.

Nabeel Sabir
Nabeel Sabir

A painful truth and none of the world body takes note

Basharat Dar
Basharat Dar

Better late than never.Hope it makes some difference....

Junaid Akbar Sandhu
Junaid Akbar Sandhu

After all, United States of America sucks being a super power in the world.

Junaid Akbar Sandhu
Junaid Akbar Sandhu

It is clearly mentioned in this report that America will be held liable for the killings of innocent civilians both in Yemen & Pakistan and Bush administration and he himself may be prosecute in the International Tribunal for War Crimes in Hague, Netherlands.

curtthrapp
curtthrapp

The day U.S. leaves the Middle East is the day terrorism will end.

thecrud
thecrud

Funny I dont remember them condemning 911. Not likley they will be defending us.

You keep making me as safe as you can with any tool you got.

duzacm43
duzacm43

@gornisht 

Drone technology is still unstable. The main reason they aren't deployed in areas where US troops are .

GalacticCannibal
GalacticCannibal

@Jaguar6cy We the USA invaded their country .. How about Russia invading the USA. with NUKE missiles .. makes drones obsolete..!!

Bluhorizon
Bluhorizon

@Karl The downward spiral of the United States is one issue, how to fight the rise of the 6th Caliphate is another. To identify the failures of the US is good but that does not mitigate the fact that the Muslims are at war with the rest of the world. There are Muslim terror operations going on in at least 50 countries now, including mine, Thailand, the most religiously tolerant country in the world. 

Every day 6-8 people are murdered by Muslim terrorists.  Old monks and farmers are murdered and their heads left by the road.  Young female teachers are beaten to death. Schools are burned.  The "reason?" 100+ years ago Thailand annexed a tiny Sultanate between Thailand and British Malaysia. The Muslims want it back and want to make it into an Islamic state. That is the excuse.   Sound familiar? Muslims find injustices committed against them like you find gum stuck to your shoe, the difference being you don't try to kill the person who dropped the gum.

It's easy for people who are safe in their country (like America or the UK) to piously moralize about the drones but if it was your father's head was left by the road or your restaurant blown up, perhaps  your appreciation for the drones might improve.  Keep in mind why there is fighting in Afghanistan:  they sheltered the terrorists who killed thousands of Americans.

We are in a world war, funded mainly (but not only) by our Saudi friends, who have funded and armed terrorists al over the world. As bad and brutal as America is, we can sleep at night knowing that for many reasons we will not find our families blown up or beheaded--unlike here in Thailand.  You Americans have so much going for you but now you are in a world war different but just as vicious as WWII. The drone is your friend, a nasty friend but one who scares Hell out of the bad guys.

bl
bl

@Yoshi 

How do you know?  Everyone killed by a drone so far was wearing the Al Shabbab Combat Uniform, as we saw in the Kenya mall attack.  Maybe they were all Al Shabbab soldiers?

pgrovesnm
pgrovesnm

@kkbaja2002 Hmm. Interesting spin, and very selective. By taking you're count we managed to kill 2 terrorists for those 3 civilians. That doesn't seem like a very "good" ratio now does it?

ApostasyUSA
ApostasyUSA

@kkbaja2002 Nice post.  ....and actually, new reports on civilian deaths in Iraq put the figures much higher. Like 350,000-500,000 dead.

bl
bl

@Saeed Ismael Al Queda deliberately targets civilians.  So does the Taliban (ask that little girl, Malala) and Al Shabbab.  

Ahu
Ahu

@Junaid Akbar Sandhu  

Yeah, too bad the Nazi's aren't the world's primary super power. Man, I missed those blatant genocides. 

soren1947
soren1947

@Junaid Akbar Sandhu Ya but its the only one we got,  If these people were with Al-Qaeda then they deserve to die with them.  Why don't you go stand by some Al-Qaeda leader.

bl
bl

@ElliotGordonCharlesSlack They have no proof.  Al Queda does not have uniforms.  They think this helps disguise their soldiers, but it comes to bite them on the buttocks.  If you can't tell who the soldiers are, you can't prove anyone is a civilian, either.

Yoshi
Yoshi

@bl @YoshiEven the children and the old people? Every one of the bodies were in "uniform"? Al-Shabab is now fielding an army to mount a war on American soil? Really? In Yemen, too? We can just send in weapons and bomb anyone, anywhere? No questions asked?

So, then, you agree that it's OK for the president to keep and use a "hit-list" of enemies that only need to be perceived to be bad? He, alone gets to make and operate on that decision of who lives and who dies, along with any and all bystanders? What's to stop him from choosing and executing perceived enemies here, in the U.S.?  What makes him different, in principle, to a strong-man war-lord?

It's all a big secret. The administration is operating with a secret playbook, with secret evidence, without any oversight, and defending this as legal and just. The president is playing judge, jury, and executioner. This is OK with you? 

Please explain how this could possibly be a "righteous" prosecution of war on our behalf.

pgrovesnm
pgrovesnm

@bl Yes. And in retaliation we bombed the countries who directly supported the Taliban, as well as Al-Qaeda.  Because we feel that a nation that directly supports terror strikes against us has directly attacked us.

So what does that say about our drone strikes into foreign countries? Shouldn't we hold ourselves to the same standards we demand from everyone else?