Responding to separate reports released Tuesday on aspects of the United States’ covert targeted killing operations abroad, the White House asserted drone strikes against supposed terror suspects was done “in accordance with all applicable law.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released Tuesday a detailed 102-page report on US drone attacks and airstrikes in Yemen against militants of the Al-Qaeda wing in the country. Amnesty International (AI) released its own report simultaneously, on US drone strikes in Pakistan.
The reports outline a variety of longstanding issues and controversies surrounding the US covert drone program, including details of civilians killed by strikes in violation of the law and US policy.
“We are reviewing these reports carefully,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
“To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree.
“The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.”
Carney insisted using unmanned drones against those the US labels terror suspects is better than sending troops or using other weapons, saying the Obama administration was “choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
Carney also said the administration’s preference is to always capture terror suspects rather than kill them, though the abduction of Anas al-Libi, an alleged Al-Qaeda leader in Libya, in early October was only the second terror suspect captured alive since Obama took office.
The HRW report considers six drone strikes that killed civilians in Yemen, one of which took place in 2009, and other five occurring in 2012-2013. These six attacks claimed the lives of 82 people, 57 of whom – or 70 percent – were civilians. HRW concluded two of the analyzed strikes violated international law, and that none of the six seemed to comply with President Obama’s May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance.
The AI report is based on the investigation of the nine out of 45 drone strikes reported between January 2012 and August 2013 in North Waziristan, the area where the US drone campaign is most intensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
AI’s research is centered on one particular case – that of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi, who was killed by a US drone last October while she was picking vegetables with her grandchildren. The report also analyzes what is known as “double-tap” strikes in which one missile is followed by a second once rescuers or onlookers have gathered to assess damage and help those injured.
The reports do not attempt to assess the number of civilians killed in drone strikes, but they do recommend more transparency to a program shrouded in secrecy, more investigations by the US into strikes that may have killed civilians and more compensation when civilian death, injury or damage occurs from a strike.
During a press conference to discuss their respective reports, representatives from HRW and AI warned that not only does the secretive program raise a multitude of legal, ethical and practicability questions, but it casts a long shadow into a future where armed unmanned vehicles will proliferate, and US use in the present is setting the tone.
“The failure to abide by international law sets a dangerous precedent for other countries,” said Andrea Prasow, counterterrorism lawyer with HRW.
AI’s Naureen Shah spoke of concern among legal scholars that the US’ seemingly wanton use of drones in recent years will make it that much more difficult to constrain other nations later.
“Drone technology is proliferating rapidly. The US government should be careful of the signal that it is sending to the world,” she said. “It’s time to end the black hole of accountability on drone strikes. The US is behaving like a hit-and-run driver.”
The US State Department says the US does have these issues in mind.
“Going forward this is a technology that we know more people will probably get access to,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told the Guardian.
“This is not just about when we decide to use this technology but when other countries do to. This is at the forefront of our counterterrorism officials’ minds and something we will certainly be discussing.”
Yet, the US, which did not respond to attempts by the organizations to comment on their findings, continues to stonewall any accountability or transparency on how strikes are conducted, how targets are assessed – especially with “signature strikes” that do not require evidence of the target’s identity – and how many civilians have perished.
Harf said the US was the only entity that can accurately determine how many have died from strikes, insisting that the total number was “much lower” than NGO estimates – which report as many as 1,000 civilians have died from strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
“Our intelligence community has ways to get information across the board that gives a much more complete picture than one or two groups can get from talking to folks on the ground,” said Harf.
Last week, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, unveiled a report calling on the US to “release its own data on the level of civilian casualties” caused by drone strikes and ongoing obfuscation attached to CIA and US special forces drone use.
Emmerson estimated at least 400 civilians had been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, and a few dozen or so civilians had been killed in Yemen.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism keeps the most complete record of the human toll of US drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The Bureau reports that through September 2013, at least around 3,000 total have been killed by US drone strikes in the three countries in the past decade, including at least around 400 civilians or those not suspected to have any connection to terrorism.
The unpopularity of the drone program within Pakistan often clashes with the tacit approval given the US operations by Pakistani leadership. If US access and drone capabilities were ended, the Pakistani military faces tough questions about how to address extremism in tribal areas, retired three-star Pakistan Army general Talat Masood told RT in an interview.
“There is no easy solution, and there is a huge dilemma within Pakistan as well,” Masood said.
If the US strikes were ended, he said, “[D]oes Pakistan have any alternative of launching military operations to clear these areas? And if it doesn’t, then it gives a big leeway and advantage to the militants. So there are human rights aspects but there are also military and operational aspects that cannot be ignored.”
President Obama is scheduled to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday in Washington.
Sharif said on Tuesday he would urge Obama to end the strikes, which he called a “major irritant” to the countries’ relations.
“I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks,” he said at the US Institute of Peace.
He added that Pakistani leaders see the drone program in Pakistan as a violation of national sovereignty and an interference with the country’s own efforts to curb militancy.
The US plans to release $1.6 billion in aid to Pakistan, the AP reported over the weekend, after the amount was put on hold due to icy relations between the countries.