Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are US Drone Attacks War Crimes?

Are US Drone Attacks War Crimes?

Not a day goes past without civilian being killed by drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.  Drones are the US Government’s new weapon of choice.  The use of drones has expanded dramatically in Pakistan, a country with which we are not at war. 

Like a playstation game in a teenager’s bedroom, the CIA is controlling this modern warfare from command centres in Langley and just outside Las Vegas.  From there, thousands of miles away from the battlefield,  they target sites and cause great human carnage at the blink of an eyelid.

A New York Times op-ed last year, citing the well-publicised casualty figures, suggested that the death toll of 700 civilians in 2010 and 14 terrorist leaders represented a ratio of 50 civilians for every militant target. Counter-insurgency expert, David Kilcullen, called for an end to the strikes at the time.

The US response to questions by international lawyers and human rights advocates about the legality of drone attacks is characteristically opaque.   Harold Koh, Obama’s legal adviser had this to say:

“With respect to the subject of targeting, which has been much commented on in the media and international legal circles, obviously there are limits to what I can say publicly. What I can say is that it is the considered view of this administration, and it has certainly been my experience during my time is legal adviser, that US targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war. 
Some have argued that the use of lethal force against specific individuals fails to provide adequate process and thus constitutes unlawful extrajudicial killing. But a state that is engaged in armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets or legal process before the state may use lethal force”.

Phillip Alston in a UN report noted that “When we decide to target these individuals, the international law of armed conflict applies. That limits the question of who can be targeted, the circumstances, and requires the  principle of proportionality to be applied”.  Put simply, it posits the question—how many other people can you kill while at the same time trying to get that target.
The United States has not provided any evidence that it is systematically examining this question when it deploys these weapons in more and more countries.  And it has not provided the public any information about the number of casualties vs militant deaths. Until it provides some information about its practices, it is very hard to judge whether these attacks are legal under international humanitarian law.

Then there is the question of the role of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA, as is now very clearly known, is essentially responsible for the operation of the drone program in Pakistan. It is not at all clear what rules govern the CIA.

Mr Phillip Alston reserves particular criticism for CIA-directed drone attacks, which he said had resulted in the deaths of "many hundreds" of civilians.
"Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries," the report says.

CIA members "are not lawful combatants and their participation in killing persons - even in an armed conflict - is a crime." US military forces may be "lawful combatants in Pakistan" only with the permission of the Pakistani government. This is not the case.

 It is worth recalling here that we are not at war with Pakistan or Yemen, so the use of lethal force with drones is in fact illegal.

Drone attacks outside traditional battlefields for extrajudicial executions are prohibited under domestic and international laws. 

Taken together, these are the facts:
·      thousands of civilians have been killed,
·      there is limited information about the drone programme coming from the US  Government, or the Russian and Chinese Governmentw which are also deplying thse weapons.
·      Pakistan has withdrawn permission to the US to target its citizens
·      Intelligence agencies do not operate within a framework which requires compliance with humanitarian law.
·      There is no international control of these weapons in any international agreement/Convention/Treaty.

This raises a serious question:  do the remote-control drone killings carry a risk of becoming war crimes?  Is it time we developed some international standards to control the use of these weapons in armed conflict as well as in contexts outside the parameters of “armed conflict”? 

I will update this page with news reports of drone attacks and commentary on drones from time to time


News Reports
Campaigners Seek Arrest of Former CIA Legal Chief over Pakistan Drone Attacks

UK human rights lawyer leads bid to have John Rizzo arrested over claims he approved attacks that killed hundreds of people

By Peter Beaumont

July 15, 2011 "
The Guardian" - - -- Campaigners against US drone strikes in Pakistan are calling for the CIA's former legal chief to be arrested and charged with murder for approving attacks that killed hundreds of people.

Amid growing concern around the world over the use of drones, lawyers and relatives of some of those killed are seeking an international arrest warrant for John Rizzo, until recently acting general counsel for the American intelligence agency.

Opponents of drones say the unmanned aircraft are responsible for the deaths of up to 2,500 Pakistanis in 260 attacks since 2004. US officials say the vast majority of those killed are "militants". Earlier this week 48 people were killed in two strikes on tribal regions of Pakistan. The American definition of "militant" has been disputed by relatives and campaigners.

The attempt to seek an international arrest warrant for Rizzo is being led by the British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith of the campaign group Reprieve, and lawyers in Pakistan. The lawyers are also building cases against other individuals, including drone operators interviewed or photographed during organised press facilities.

A first information report, the first step in seeking a prosecution of Rizzo in Pakistan, will be formally lodged early next week at a police station in the capital, Islamabad, on behalf of relatives of two people killed in drone strikes in 2009. The report will also allege Rizzo should be charged with conspiracy to murder a large number of Pakistani citizens.

Now retired, Rizzo, 63, is being pursued after admitting in an interview with the magazine Newsweek that since 2004 he had approved one drone attack order a month on targets in Pakistan, even though the US is not at war with the country.

Rizzo, who was by his own admission "up to my eyeballs" in approving CIA use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", said in the interview that the CIA operated "a hit list". He also asked: "How many law professors have signed off on a death warrant?"

Rizzo has also admitted being present while civilian operators conducted drone strikes from their terminals at the CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Although US government lawyers have tried to argue that drone strikes are conducted on a "solid legal basis", some believe the civilians who operate the drones could be classified as "unlawful combatants".

US drone strikes were first launched on Pakistan by George Bush and have been accelerated by Barack Obama.

Much of the intelligence for the attacks is supplied either by the Pakistani military or the ISI, the country's controversial intelligence agency.

Both have blocked journalists and human rights investigators from visiting the tribal areas targeted, preventing independent verification of the numbers killed and their status.

While Stafford Smith of Reprieve estimates around 2,500 civilian deaths, others say the number is closer to 1,000. US sources deny large numbers of civilian deaths and say only a few dozen "non-combatants" have been killed.

While killing civilians in military operations is not illegal under international law unless it is proved to be deliberate, disproportionate or reckless, Stafford Smith believes the nature of the US drone campaign puts it on a different legal footing.

"The US has to follow the laws of war," he said. "The issue here is that this is not a war. There is zero chance, given the current political situation in Pakistan, that we will not get a warrant for Rizzo. The question is what happens next. We can try for extradition and the US will refuse.

"Interpol, I believe, will have to issue a warrant because there is no question that it is a legitimate complaint."

The warrant will be sought on the basis of two test cases. The first centres on an incident on 7 September 2009 when a drone strike hit a compound during Ramadan, brought by a man named Sadaullah who lost both his legs and three relatives in the attack.

The second complaint was brought by Kareem Khan over a strike on 31 December 2009 in the village of Machi Khel in North Waziristan which killed his son and brother.

Both men allege Rizzo was involved in authorising the attack. The CIA refused to comment on the allegations.

The pursuit of Rizzo will further damage US-Pakistani relations, which are already under severe strain following years of drone attacks and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. Last week the US suspended $800m (£495m) in military aid to Pakistan.

The US launch its first drone strike against a target in Pakistan in 2004, the only one for that year. Last year there were 118 attacks after Obama expanded their use in 2009, while 2011 has so far seen 42.

The use of drones has been sharply criticised both by Pakistani officials as well as international investigators including the UN's special rapporteur Philip Alston who demanded in late 2009 that the US demonstrate that it was not simply running a programme with no accountability that is killing innocent people.

THe US may have just spent months trying to find a way to prevent the country from defaulting, but that doesn't stop the lunacy. Billions will be spent in the next couple of years purchasing 55 Global Hawk drone planes. Each of the four dozen-plus spy crafts comes at a price tag of $218 million apiece.