Amnesty International: Attacks from US Aerial Drones in Pakistan

Amnesty International USA have published a new report, As if Hell Fell on Me’: The Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan, looking at the impact on civilians of the onging conflict in Northwest Pakistan.  Describing the area as a “human rights free zone”, the report says that civilians are facing the triple threat of the Taleban, the Pakistan army and US drone attacks. 

A short chapter in the report  – mostly reproduced on the web  here – focuses on the CIA’s drone attacks in the area.   The following, looking at the legal situation,  is excerted from the report:

In March 2010, Harold Koh, Legal Adviser to the United States Department of State, set out for the first time a brief explanation of the Obama administration’s claimed basis in international law for the drone attacks.  

He asserted that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, as well as the Taleban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks” adding that the USA “may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law”. Harold Koh argued that this included “authority under international law … to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qa’ida leaders who are planning attacks.“ He further stated that “whether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses”, adding that the principles of distinction and proportionality under international law were adhered to in both planning and execution of all attacks.

This explanation leaves many questions unanswered. Even after Koh’s statement, the USA has not officially  acknowledged that it carries out drone attacks in Pakistan (Koh speaks only generally, of “lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles”) and refuses to provide any official information on these attacks, which is crucial to assess their legitimacy under international law and standards. These include who the targets were, what justification there was for using lethal force against them, whether non-letha alternatives were tried or even considered, what safeguards were put in place to ensure that civilians not endangered, who was killed or injured, what investigations took place in cases where violations of  international legal rules are suspected and more. Nor was such information forthcoming from the Pakistani authorities. In addition, the attacks have taken place in remote areas to which access is difficult. For these reasons, Amnesty International could not independently investigate conditions surrounding the planning, conduct, or consequences of drone attacks in Pakistan. The organization calls upon the governments concerned – the USA and Pakistan—to ensure that all their actions are in strict accordance with relevant rules of international law, and that sufficient information is made available to the public to ensure accountability.

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