Naureen Aqueel

Drone attacks: Unlawful killings, double standards

Posted on: November 25, 2010

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 25, 2010.

A recent report indicated that the US was considering expanding drone operations in Pakistan to now encompass areas surrounding Quetta. Pakistan vociferously rejected the expansion and said the US would not be allowed to expand the areas where drones operate.

Drone attacks have a history stretching back to 2004, when they started as part of George Bush’s war on terror. An independent tally by New America Foundation, shows that there have been 199 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan with approximately 103 in 2010 alone. The records state that till today between 1,276 and 1,955 individuals were killed, of whom around 965 to 1,420 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. The non-militant fatality since 2004 according to this record was 28 per cent, while in 2010 it was approximately 8 per cent.

Statistics compiled by Pakistani authorities indicated that US drones killed 708 people in 44 Predator attacks in 2009, but that only five of these were able to hit their real targets meaning that for each al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists killed, 140 innocent Pakistanis had to die.

US authorities continue to stress that the attacks have successfully helped kill a number of high-profile al Qaeda targets. They point to high profile successes like the killings of most wanted Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.

Yet, a ratio of 140 deaths for one high profile target hardly spells success. Apparently, these strikes are not precision ‘one-bullet’ type of killings that kill only the intended target of the attack. There is always a horrendous ‘collateral damage’ attached.

Interestingly, there is more to this debate then just the measly collateral damage that officials brush off with a wave of their hand.  That the killings are unlawful themselves is often ignored. Most strikes that report the successful killing of ‘militants’ and ‘insurgents’ rarely identify the names of those killed. Who are they? What are the accusations and evidence against them? By what means has the US military obtained information about their ‘militant’ activities? Have they been tried and indicted in court? These are just some of the questions that need answers. Killing ‘alleged’ militants outside any zone of combat without proving charges is an extra-judicial killing and illegal by international law.

Another serious concern is how a state can allow its own citizens to be killed by a foreign power. Drone attacks in the tribal regions are a serious breach of Pakistani sovereignty. The fact that these attacks are carried out with the connivance of the government is another debate altogether.

Does the US not notice this extra-judicial killing considering it had created much uproar about a recent video that showed apparent Pakistani army personnel carrying out extra-judicial executions of militants? There was much concern about fears of illegal executions that are constituted as human rights violations and war crimes. But what happens when it is an unmanned US predator carrying out the executions via drone missiles that kill innocent civilians and also destroy infrastructure?

Drones have a proven record of having killed non-combatants just like any other terror attack kills innocent civilians. Both are worthy of condemnation and neither deserves to be tolerated. Terror attacks in our cities and drone attacks are invariably connected since after almost every terror attack that inhumanely kills innocent civilians, destroys infrastructure and disrupts everyday life, terrorists point to the continued drone operations as the motive. These predator attacks do nothing but make US installations in the country more vulnerable to attack. Because at the end of the day, when the law is flouted, and the state allows the perpetration of extra-judicial killings, a deadly cycle of violence steps in to fill the legal void.

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