Two recent reports on America’s drone wars reveal some very disturbing evidence that the use of drones is killing more civilians than the US wants to admit and that their use is a war crime. The report by Amnesty International (pdf) focused on the killing of Mamana Bibi, a 68 year old grandmother who was killed while picking vegetables in a field with her grandchildren in North Waziristan, Pakistan. A few minutes later a second strike injured family members trying to aid her. Amnesty International has stated that the drone strikes are unlawful amounting to war crimes or extrajudicial assassinations.
Based on rare access to North Waziristan, the region in Pakistan where most drone strikes have occurred, Amnesty International conducted detailed field research into nine drone strikes that occurred between January 2012 and August 2013 and which raise serious questions about violations of the right to life.
Among them is the October 2012 killing of 68-year old grandmother Mamana Bibi. She was killed in a double strike, apparently by a Hellfire missile, as she picked vegetables in the family’s fields and while surrounded by a handful of her grandchildren.
“We cannot find any justification for these killings,” said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher. “There are genuine threats to the U.S. and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances. But it is hard to believe that a group of laborers, or a grandmother surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all, let alone posing an imminent threat to the United States.”
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 follow-on attack. In a July 2012 case, 18 laborers, including 14-year-old Saleh Khan, were killed in multiple strikes on an 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. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as U.S. drones continued to hover overhead.
In addition to the threat of U.S. drone strikes, people in North Waziristan are frequently caught between attacks by armed groups and Pakistan’s armed forces. Al-Qa’ida-linked groups have killed dozens of local villagers they accused of being spies for U.S. drone strikes.
Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.
“The US says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
As with the unfettered surveillance program, this must be brought out of the shadows and a full accounting of the hundreds of civilians killed. Those responsible for their deaths must be held accountable and brought to justice.