New Reports Document Civilian Casualties From U.S. Drone Strikes

CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Air Force

Two leading human rights groups issued reports on Tuesday indicating that the United States’ use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles — or drones — may be responsible for more deaths than previously acknowledged in Pakistan and Yemen, while one group called on the U.S. to be more transparent about its targeted killing counterterror program.

Amnesty International’s new report and accompanying video — both titled “Will I Be Next?” — interviewed Pakistanis who have had close encounters with drones, including relatives of those allegedly killed in drone strikes. The research was carried out on the ground in the North Warizistan area of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, where Taliban and al-Qaeda operate, which is in turn a hotbed of drone activity. According to Amnesty’s research, the United States has not only routinely hit civilians in strikes that it has yet to publicly claim credit for, it also engages in second strikes after the first missiles have been launched, killing the responders in what has been called a “double-tap.”

In one instance, a 68-year old woman named Mamana Bibi was reportedly killed in a strike that seemed targeted at her. In the report’s video, Amnesty’s Mustafa Qadri describes Bibi harvesting vegetables in a field with her grandchildren when the first strike occurred, and she was “literally killed in front of their very eyes.” The second strike injured more of her grandchildren. One of Bibi’s sons showed Amnesty the x-ray where the second missile’s shrapnel had lodged itself in his daughter’s arm and another showing the iron rods that had to be placed in his son’s broken leg.

The U.S. government has given no acknowledgement of the strike, nor has the family been offered any sort of explanation or compensation. “The U.S.A. is hiding behind a veil of secrecy to prevent any kind of investigations of killings like Mamana Bibi’s,” Qadri says. “Her family should not have to pay the price for the U.S.A.’s so-called global war against al-Qaeda and its allies. The U.S. must assure its drone program is consistent with human rights.”

The global nature of the program is evident when Amnesty’s report is taken in conjunction with Human Rights Watch’s new report — “Between a Drone and al-Qaeda” — also released on Tuesday. Six targeted killings are the focus of the document, ranging from as early as 2009 to as recently as April 2013. In one of the strikes, which Yemeni officials described as a meeting of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its fellows, five men were killed. While three were AQAP members, according to HRW, two were members of the community meeting with the terrorist group to stand by their denunciation of its tactics.

According to the HRW survey, in the six strikes examined, 57 of the 82 deaths in Yemen were civilians rather than terrorists. “We Yemenis are the ones who pay the price of the ‘war on terror,’” Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a relative of the two community members standing against AQAP, told Human Rights Watch. “We are caught between a drone on one side and Al-Qaeda on the other.”

Despite the large toll drone strikes have allegedly had on civilians, not all of the strikes mentioned in the two new reports involve only innocent lives lost. In the interactive map Amnesty provides with its report, several of the sites show that the targets hit actually were members of armed groups that the U.S. has repeatedly acknowledged that it targets in Pakistan. In one strike that took place in July of this year, 16 were killed in Dandai Darpa Khel, in the North Warizistan region of Pakistan. All of those killed, as well as another five injured, were members of armed groups, including the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and various foreign fighters. Another strike in January resulted in an estimated nine killed and four injured, all of whom were al-Qaida or Taliban members.

The potential for drones to actually decrease the number of civilians killed in combat was recognized recently in an interim report from, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. “If used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders,” Emmerson wrote. At present, however, drone use does not meet that standard according to Emmerson, who believes that 400 Pakistanis have been killed in U.S. strikes, far more than the U.S. has ever claimed in public.

This lack of transparency, Human Rights watch argues, is allowing U.S. strikes in Yemen to bear little resemblance at times to the justifications and guidelines President Obama outlined in a speech at the National Defense University in May. “Over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in presidential policy guidance that I signed yesterday,” Obama said at the time. Senior administration officials insisted that the guidelines included in that “playbook” were either currently already being carried out or would soon be implemented.

Unfortunately, those claims are hard to assess, given that the playbook remains classified. Since then, the U.S. has reportedly taken some steps towards curbing the use of drones including reducing the number of “signature strikes” — or strikes that target people based on profile rather than confirmed identity — in Pakistan and claims that strikes may end all together in Pakistan in the near future. Given how much of the program remains heavily guarded, however, many questions remain about precisely what is happening behind the scenes.