Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Amnesty and HRW: US drone attacks are unlawful and kill many innocent civilians

<p>The remnants of a US drone strike on August 29, 2012 in Khashamir, Yemen. The strike killed three alleged members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a policeman, and a cleric who preached against the armed group.</p>
The remnants of a US drone strike on August 29, 2012 in Khashamir, Yemen. The strike killed three alleged members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a policeman, and a cleric who preached against the armed group.(Reuters)

The two human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both have issued reports about America's war with drones at tha same day. The reports were on Tuesday at a joint press conference. Amnesty International reviewed all 45 known drone strikes that took place in North Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan between January 2012 and August 2013. The region that has seen more strikes than any other part of the country. Human Right Watch's  report is about the American strikes in Yemen. Both reports concluded, not unexpectedly, that the strikes, apart from alleged activists or terrorists,  killed many innocent civilians.
Amnesty did detailed field research into nine strikes and documented killings, which raise serious questions about violations of international law. In October 2012, 68-year-old grandmother Mamana Bibi was killed in a double strike, apparently by a Hellfire missile, as she picked vegetables in the family’s fields while surrounded by a handful of her grandchildren. In July 2012, 18 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in multiple strikes on a impoverished village close to the border with Afghanistan as they were about to enjoy an evening meal at the end of a long day of work. Amnesty International also documented cases of so-called “rescuer attacks” in which those who ran to the aid of the victims of an initial drone strike were themselves targeted in a rapid follow-on attack. While there may have been a presumption that the rescuers were members of the group being targeted, it is difficult to see how such distinctions could be made in the immediate and chaotic aftermath of a missile strike.

Human Rights Watch investigated six strikes which killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. HRW interviewed during six weeks in Yemen in 2012-2013, more than 90 people about the strikes including witnesses, relatives of those killed, lawyers, human rights defenders, and government officials. Human Rights Watch reviewed evidence including ordnance and videos from attack sites. Security concerns prevented visits to four of the attack areas.

They include a US drone-assisted attack in September 2012 in Sarar, central Yemen, that unlawfully struck a passenger van, killing 12 civilians. Villagers who rushed to the scene found their relatives’ charred bodies dusted in flour and sugar that they were bringing home from a nearby market. The reported target of the strike, an alleged local AQAP leader, was nowhere near the vehicle.
“The bodies were charred like coal – I could not recognize the faces,” said Ahmad al-Sabooli, a 23-year-old farmer. He told Human Rights Watch that when he moved in closer, he realized that three of the bodies, including those of a woman with a young girl still in her lap, were his father, mother, and 10-year-old sister. “That is when I put my head in my hands and cried,” he said.
In December 2009, a US cruise missile strike on a Bedouin camp in the southern village of al-Majalah killed 14 alleged AQAP fighters and 41 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children. The attack involved cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate weapons that pose unacceptabledangers to civilians.
In August 2012, a US drone attack killed three alleged AQAP members but also a cleric who preached against AQAP, and his cousin, a police officer. Relatives said the three suspects had sought out the cleric for a meeting three days after he denounced AQAP’s violent tactics, and that the cousin had come along to provide the cleric security.
During targeting operations, the US may be using an overly elastic definition of a fighter who may be lawfully attacked during an armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said. For example, a November 2012 drone strike in the military town of Beit al-Ahmar killed an alleged AQAP recruiter, but recruiting activities alone would not be sufficient grounds under the laws of war to target someone for attack.
The six strikes also did not meet US policy guidelines for targeted killings that Obama disclosed in May 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Obama said the US conducts strikes only against individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people,” when there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” and when capture is not feasible. The strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch pre-date Obama’s disclosure of the policy guidelines, but the White House has said the rules either were either “already in place” or being “transitioned into place.”
International law prohibits arbitrary killing and limits the lawful use of intentional lethal force to exceptional situations. In armed conflict, only combatants and people directly participating in hostilities may be directly targeted. Outside armed conflict, intentional lethal force is lawful only when strictly unavoidable to protect against an imminent threat to life . In some circumstances arbitrary killing can amount to a war crime or extrajudicial execution, which are crimes under international law. With rare exceptions, the US government only acknowledges its role in targeted killings in general terms, refusing to take responsibility for individual strikes or provide casualty figures, including civilian deaths. The Yemeni authorities have been almost as silent.

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