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US Drones Have Killed Up to 900 Civilians in Pakistan

Amnesty International's new report joins the international chorus calling for America to be more transparent and accountable.
Predator drone via Wikimedia Commons

Amnesty International just published the results of detailed field research on nine of 45 reported drone strikes that occurred between January 2012 and August 2013 in the Pakistan's North Waziristan region—and found that the US might be responsible for up to 900 civilian deaths. The report is a microcosm of a program that has been on-going since the start of Bush's second term, and has grown under the Obama administration.

“According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013,” which resulted in estimates of between “400 and 900 civilians [having] been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured,” the report stated.


The international community, and humanitarian NGOs specifically, are calling on the US to be more forthcoming about its drone program, which is said to be fighting terrorism in Yemen and Pakistan in violation of international laws of war.

Amnesty International's report, titled "Will I Be Next," is an attempt by the humanitarian organization “to shed light on a secretive program of surveillance and killings occurring in one of the most dangerous, neglected and inaccessible regions of the world," and tells how the strikes impact the victims and the region of North Waziristan, which shares a porous border with Afghanistan.

via Amnesty International

One of the report's reoccurring themes is just how difficult it is to get answers from the US government on the drone program. The CIA, which is thought to be in charge of the drone program, redirected Amnesty’s inquiries to the White House, which did not reply.

Instead, the American side is represented by a statement from Senator Lindsay Graham, who said that the USA had killed “a total of 4,700 people using drone aircraft as of early 2013,” but it’s not clear exactly if Graham was including the war in Iraq in his total.

Elsewhere, American officials have praised the drone program for its efficiency in preventing accidental deaths. NBC reports, “In a 2011 speech, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who is now CIA director, said that ‘for nearly the past year, there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency (and) precision’ of U.S. counterterror strikes.”


For Amnesty’s part, if this is true, why all the secrecy?

Amnesty International recognizes that some US drone strikes may not violate human rights or international humanitarian law. But it is impossible to reach any firm assessment without a full disclosure of the facts surrounding individual attacks and their legal basis. The USA must provide evidence to prove that drone strikes comply with international human rights law and where applicable international humanitarian law, including in the specific cases documented in this report.

The authors of the report are “the war on terror” rhetoric has be used as “to license the use of intentional lethal force when it is not strictly unavoidable to protect life,” and when it could be in violation of international law.

The American silence is akin to obfuscation, which makes many pertinent questions unanswerable. “Who were the intended targets? Why were they attacked? What legal framework was applied by those planning and executing the attacks? Most of this uncertainty arises from the US authorities’ deliberate policy of refusing to disclose information or even acknowledge responsibility for particular attacks.”

Far from solely blaming the United States, the report also points what its authors perceive as failures on the part of Pakistan—for leaving this region of its jurisdiction under-developed, and creating a vacuum to be filled by armed groups who “have been responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses constituting war crimes and other crimes under international law in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Pakistan has a poor record for bringing these perpetrators to justice without resorting to the death penalty, and the country’s neglect of the region has also failed to ensure that its residents enjoy key human rights protections.


But also Pakistan has a duty to independently and impartially investigate all drone strikes in its own country and “ensure access to justice and reparation for victims of violations,” just as the United States is obliged to investigate drone strikes and hold those responsible for innocent lives lost accountable.

The report asks that the US make the criteria it uses to determine when and where to drone strike public knowledge, and to make public any investigations into incidents where unlawful killing may have occurred, lest the US join a lineage of abusers and exploiters of Waziristan.

“By hiding behind arguments of secrecy and exploiting the difficulty in confirming details of specific strikes due to the lawlessness, remoteness and insecurity of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, the USA is contributing to the litany of violations and abuses endured by a population that has been both neglected and assaulted by their own state and victimized by al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other armed groups."

This is one of two major reports calling for more transparency on the US drone program from an international humanitarian organization. Human Rights Watch issued a 93-page report on strikes in Yemen today. Two of the strikes, the report says, “killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war.” The UN general assembly is debating another report on strikes in Yemen and Pakistan at the general assembly on Friday.

The US, for its part, remains resolute that drone strikes are a necessary part of the war on terror. A family injured in a strike that Amnesty International mentioned in its report is supposed to testify before Congress on Oct. 29, but their lawyer has been denied a visa.