South Asia Research and Analysis Studies

The ubiquitous drone attacks
Sultan M Hali

Drone attacks, which were only sporadic in the era of George W. Bush, gained momentum when President Obama took the reins of the Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces. The reign of terror launched by the ubiquitous drones has wreaked havoc on the people residing in the tribal belt of Pakistan. Not only are the attacks illegal and a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty but a clear violation of human rights. Nobel laureate for peace President Obama has in fact taken on the role of Ares, the Greek god of war, who brought bane, ruin, curse and imprecation on the people.

Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed as collateral damage through drone attacks in Pakistan, which commenced in 2004. In October 2006, 83 Madrassah students between the ages of 9 and 15 were callously targeted and killed. It was not till January 2012 that President Obama admitted to the use of drones in Pakistan to kill the alleged militants. To underscore the collateral damage and perhaps satisfy the conscience of its people, the US government has changed the definition of a militant naming any able bodied male as a militant. This is the most callous and gruesome way of justifying killing innocent civilians by labeling them as “militants”.

Rubbing salt in the wound, President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, last month characterized civilian casualties from drone strikes as “exceedingly rare.” US State Department legal advisor Harold Koh stated that the drone strikes were legal because of the right to self-defense. According to Koh, the US is involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their affiliates and therefore may use force consistent with self-defense under international law. On the other hand, on June 7, 2012 after a four-day visit to Pakistan, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for a new investigation into US drone strikes in Pakistan, repeatedly referring to the attacks as “indiscriminate,” and said that the attacks constitute human rights violations.

In a report issued on 18 June 2012, Christof Heyns, UN special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, called on the US’ Obama administration to justify its use of targeted assassinations rather than attempting to capture al Qaeda or Taliban suspects. Earlier this week, Ben Emmerson UN special Rapporteur on human rights has asked the US to hand over footage of drone strikes or face UN inquiry, to urge establishing a mechanism to investigate such killings. He stated that it was time for the US to open itself up to scrutiny as to the legality of such attacks. While it remains nigh on impossible for observers to establish the truth on the ground in many of areas, each strike is visually recorded and videos could be passed to independent assessors, he explained.

Dennis Halliday, former Assistant to the UN Secretary General, has opined that in the case of Pakistan, the drone attacks are a total violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan by the United States. It is a violation of the UN charter and the provision of the charter which prohibits nation states attacking each other in this sort of violence and thirdly, it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions protocols which very specifically preclude the killing of civilians.

It is ironic that the US Constitution itself advises against the killing of innocent civilians. An inscription on a bronze plaque on the Statute of Liberty says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Here the United States government, instead of believing in the policy of live and let live, is killing, maiming and making homeless thousands of innocent civilians including children, women and old men in Pakistan.

It is the people of the United States, who remain oblivious of the atrocities carried out by its administration in the name of war on terror, and need to be brought on board to exert pressure on their government to cease this endless killing of innocent civilians. Some US politicians and academics have condemned the drone strikes. US Congressman Dennis Kucinich asserted that the United States was violating international law by carrying out strikes against a country that never attacked the United States. Georgetown University professor Gary D. Solis asserts that since the drone operators at the CIA are civilians directly engaged in armed conflict, this makes them “unlawful combatants” and possibly subject to prosecution. Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer has sued the CIA for its actions of killing innocent civilians through drone strikes. He has also sued the Pakistan government for failing to protect its own citizens from strikes by the United States in Pakistan.

Pakistani journalist Karim Khan has sued the CIA for 500 million dollars in Pakistan’s domestic High Court. Khan has petitioned the Peshawar High Court for his case, challenging both the US program and Pakistan’s complicity with the program. His brother and nephew, who became victims of a drone attack, are claimed to be innocent civilians. Jonathan Banks (perhaps a cover name) of the then CIA chief in Pakistan, who was named in the lawsuit along with Robert Gates the then Defence Secretary and Leon Panetta, then CIA Director was withdrawn from Pakistan.

It’s ironic that the number of drone operators in the US today, far outnumbers its fighter pilots. A stark reminder that the Obama administration is relying more and more on the unmanned aerial vehicles, which offer little or no danger to the US, even if shot down and have become a cost effective method of dealing with the enemies of the US. The sad part is that the collateral damage, which is estimated to be more than seventy percent per strike, continues to be swept under the carpet as if the lives of the innocent civilians have no value. On the other hand, the relatives of the drone attack victims are often approached by the terrorists and promised redress for the lives of their relatives if they join the ranks of the miscreants; thus causing more harm than good.