Home inContext Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Drone Strikes

Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Drone Strikes

Michael Johnson

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), two influential human rights organizations, released separate reports on Tuesday criticizing the Obama administration’s use of drones in the fight against al Qaeda terrorists. The reports detail instances of where secret drone strikes killed civilians and violated international law in Pakistan and Yemen.

Amnesty International’s investigation into nine strikes in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region between January 2012 and August 2013 finds civilians were disproportionately killed by U.S. drone attacks. In one incident, Amnesty reported that the U.S. killed 18 laborers as they waited to eat dinner. According to locals, who often fear of reprisals from Taliban in the area, the men were not engaged in militant activities. Amnesty believes more justification, other than “association” with a terrorist group, is needed to carry out a strike. “[We have] serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” said the report. HRW focused on six drone strikes in Yemen in which 57 civilians were killed.

A high-tech Predator UAV can strike targets while its operator sits miles away. (Photo: USAF)

Most strikes occur in remote areas where the local population is hostile to outsiders, making information hard to verify. Both organizations recommended the U.S. government increase transparency, release better statistics for the number of people killed in each attack and create more stringent definitions of “enemy combatants.”

Tuesday’s reports help highlight findings from a UN investigator released Friday. Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special investigator on human rights and counterterrorism, found that nearly 400 of the 2,200 people killed from drone strikes in Pakistan over the past decades were civilians. He also urged the U.S. to release more detailed figures about civilian casualties following drone attacks.

These reports come after the U.S. government said it had already begun to change how it engages with terrorists. In recent weeks, the military sent special forces to capture terrorists in Libya and Somalia rather than kill them. [The Libyan raid was problematic in a different way: the Libyan government strongly denounced the insertion of U.S. forces into the country and what it called “the kidnapping” of a Libyan citizen.] Earlier in the year, President Obama signed new guidelines limiting the use of drone attacks to avoid civilian casualties. Lastly, a wider shift in government policy has been taking place. More drone operations are beginning to fall under the scope of the US military and less under the CIA, in part to improve accountability.