New reports published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch sharply criticize the U.S. drone program in Pakistan and Yemen, calling into question the legality of the program and even raising the possibility of U.S. war crimes.
These reports come on the heels of an interim report by a United Nations special rapporteur, which also questioned the legality of the program and mentioned the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
The report was based on 60 interviews with eyewitnesses, families and residents of North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal region, where many of the U.S. drone strikes occur.
Human Rights Watch’s new report, released publicly on Monday, focuses on civilian casualties in Yemen.
The Human Rights Watch report is based on interviews with 90 people about six U.S. strikes in Yemen. One of the strikes dates from 2009 and five occurred from 2012 to 2013.
The reports are filled with graphic anecdotes that are not recommended reading for the faint of heart. They include the goriest of details and direct quotes from people who witnessed horrific incidents.
The Human Rights Watch report recommends some steps for the governments of both the United States and Yemen to take.
Like the United Nations report, the Human Rights Watch report calls on the U.S. government to release key facts about the drone program that have been kept secret to this point.
As the interim U.N. report did, the report called for the number of militants and civilians killed to be released.
However, it also called for the release of the Justice Department memoranda outlining the Obama administration’s interpretation of operational law behind the drone program.
Of course currently the legal justification for the drone program is completely secret.
In January 2013, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration never has to explain the legal basis for the killing of Americans by drone, though they can continue to claim it is legal to do so.
In February, a Justice Department white paper – not the official memo at issue here – was released, showing that the government believes they can kill Americans without clear evidence of terrorist activity.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Yemeni government to take steps to ensure that all possible precautions are taken to lessen the danger to civilians when targeted killings are carried out.
The report also calls on Yemen’s government to provide “prompt and meaningful compensation” for any loss of life or damage to property when civilians or their property is harmed.
Amnesty International was left with significant uncertainty, arising “from the US authorities’ deliberate policy of refusing to disclose information or even acknowledge responsibility for particular attacks.”
This conclusion is quite similar to that of the interim U.N. report.
“What is certain from Amnesty International’s research, however, is that the cases in this report raise serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law,” the Amnesty International report states.
There two major obstacles facing transparency in the U.S. drone program, TIME reports, citing Joshua Foust, a commentator on U.S. counter-terrorism policy and former fellow at the American Security Project.
“First, the drone politics of a country like Pakistan are messy, with the government quietly supporting the strikes (including feeding the U.S. intelligence), then publicly condemning them and whipping public opinion into a frenzy,” TIME reports.
Second, the U.S. government has little political incentive in declassifying drone policy, as there are “virtually no political consequences for the Obama Administration continuing as they have for years.”
Until Americans start having a problem with the use of U.S. drones abroad, Foust says that “none of the other calls for redress or openness will come to pass.”
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