2 human rights groups question legality of U.S. drone strikes

Jonathan S. Landay

The Obama administration violated international law with top-secret targeted-killing operations that claimed dozens of civilian lives in Yemen and Pakistan, according to reports that two international human rights organizations released Tuesday.

The Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports focus fresh attention on the most controversial facet of the U.S. campaign to cripple al Qaida and allied Islamic extremist groups, underscoring unresolved disputes over the legality of the targeted-killing program, the vast majority of which is carried out by missiles fired from unmanned drone aircraft.

Despite a vow by President Barack Obama to institute greater transparency, “the administration has yet to officially disclose any new information about drone policy, the legal framework or particular strikes,” Amnesty International said.

The reports follow the release last week of a United Nations study that questioned the legality of some U.S. drone strikes and said it had identified 33 incidents “that appear to have resulted in civilian casualties.” In April, McClatchy reported that secret CIA documents on drone strikes indicated that the U.S. often fired on individuals who did not meet targeting standards that they be “specific senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces.” The documents also showed that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”

Obama and senior U.S. officials have defended targeted killings as legal under U.S. and international laws. In a speech last May, the president outlined a broad legal “framework” for continuing the operations, while asserting that he wanted to scale them back amid an outcry that civilian casualties have fueled anti-U.S. extremism.

The administration says civilian casualties have been low. It contends that the operations have eliminated dozens of top al Qaida leaders, crippling the ability of the network’s Pakistan-based leadership to mount complex global attacks.

Human Rights Watch examined six “unacknowledged” U.S. targeted-killing operations that occurred from December 2009 to April 2013. They included one incident in which cluster munitions released by U.S. Navy cruise missiles killed at least 41 civilians, the group said.

“Two of these attacks were in clear violation of international law – the laws of war – because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons,” the Human Rights Watch report said. “The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm.”

“In several of these cases, the U.S. also did not take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, as the laws of war require,” the report said.

The Amnesty International report reviewed 45 reported CIA drone strikes that occurred from January 2012 to August 2013 in Pakistan’s tribal area of North Waziristan, a stronghold of al Qaida and Pakistani and Afghan extremist groups where Pakistani law doesn’t apply. The group conducted field research into nine of the strikes, interviewing more than 60 survivors, witnesses, residents and officials.

Some U.S. drone strikes “violated the right to life” – which is protected under international human rights law – of Pakistani civilians “and may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes,” Amnesty International said.

“The U.S. appears to be exploiting the lawlessness and remote nature of the local region to evade accountability for violations of the right to life,” the group said.

The United States is aiding Yemen in its fight against al Qaida’s regional affiliate, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has attempted several unsuccessful terrorist attacks against the U.S. The American support has included targeted killings by the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

In one of the targeted killings examined by the Human Rights Watch report, “Between a Drone and al Qaida: The Civilian Cost of U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen,” up to five U.S. Navy cruise missiles scattered cluster munitions in the southern hamlet of al Majalah on Dec. 17, 2009.

Fourteen suspected fighters from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula died, including the apparent primary target, the report said, quoting a Yemeni government inquiry. At least 41 civilians – including nine women and 21 children – also were killed, it continued.

Unexploded bomblets, it said, later killed four more civilians and wounded 13.

The attack “may more properly be viewed as a violation of international human rights law,” which allows such operations outside war zones only to prevent “imminent” terrorist strikes and when other means, such as capture, cannot be used, the report said.

The attack also could be considered a violation of the laws of war because it employed indiscriminate weapons “and caused indiscriminate and possibly disproportionate civilian casualties,” the report added.

“The families have not received any compensation for the deaths and injuries,” it said.

The other operations examined in the report involved U.S. missile strikes by drones – possibly warplanes in one incident – that killed suspected members of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and civilians from September 2012 to April 2013.

In its report, Amnesty International described CIA drone strikes in North Waziristan known as “double taps.” Those involve hitting suspected militants, waiting for rescuers to reach the scene and then firing missiles at the rescuers if they fit secret U.S. government “signatures” – or profiles – of extremists, such as military-age males carrying weapons.

The Amnesty International report, “ ‘Will I Be Next?’ U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” said the organization had documented many cases in which civilians – not militants – were struck as they responded to drone strikes.

In one case, the report said, drones staged two strikes in July 2012 in the village of Zowi Sidgi, first on a tent in which laborers had gathered for a meal and second on locals who rushed to the scene to search for survivors. At least 18 people died, including at least one boy, and 22 villagers were wounded, according to the report.

“Not all drone strikes violate human rights or international law,” it said. “The full picture will only come to light when U.S. authorities fully disclose the facts, circumstances and legal basis for each of its drone strikes.”

Last week’s U.N. report, however, questioned the legality of any U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan after April 2012. That was when the Pakistani Parliament imposed tough restrictions on who in government could approve a U.S. drone operation along with a requirement that the authorization of a drone strike must be “announced through a ministerial statement in the Parliament.”

“That procedure has not been invoked to authorize the use of remotely piloted aircraft in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” the U.N. study said.

By Jonathan S. Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau