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US Drone Strikes May Be War Crimes – Rights Groups

23.10.2013 18:39

The United States may have committed war crimes in its campaign of drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and Yemen over the past four years, killing civilians indiscriminately in its stated pursuit of terrorist targets, two prominent human rights groups said in reports released Tuesday.

"Secrecy surrounding the drones program gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law. It's time for the USA to come clean about the drones program and hold those responsible for these violations to account," Mustafa Qadri, the Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International, said in a statement.

In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty documents strikes by US drones in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan in 2012 and 2013 that it says resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians and "raise serious questions about violations of international law that could amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions."

The United States quickly disputed the affirmations made in the reports.

"We believe that we are always operating in accordance with international law," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters.

"We would strongly disagree with the notion in some of these reports to the extent that they claim we are acting contrary to international law."

Harf acknowledged that US drone strikes had led to some civilian deaths but said there was 'a wide gap' between US estimates of those numbers and the numbers contained in reports from non-governmental organizations.

She declined to provide the US government numbers, saying doing so would compromise the sources and methods used obtain them. Groups like Amnesty, she said, "don't have a complete picture" and "we undertake every effort to limit" civilian deaths in drone strikes.

In an October 2012 attack, for example, a US Hellfire missile killed a 68-year-old grandmother while she picked vegetables with her grandchildren nearby, Amnesty said.

"We cannot find any justification for these killings," Qadri said in the statement accompanying the release of the report, titled Will I Be Next" US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.

Amnesty released the report together with New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which issued its own report on the US drone campaign in Yemen since 2009.

Titled Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen, the HRW report alleges that two of the six attacks in Yemen it examined led to indiscriminate deaths of civilians that clearly constitute war crimes.

"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," Letta Tayler, a senior HRW terrorism and counterterrorism researcher and the author of the report, said in a statement.

The six attacks killed 82 people, at least 57 of whom were civilians. The civilian deaths included 12 people killed in a drone-assisted attack on a passenger van the HRW report claims.

"The bodies were charred like coal, I could not recognize the faces," Ahmad al-Sabooli, a 23-year-old farmer whose father, mother and 10-year-old sister were killed in the strike on the van, told HRW.

The use of drone strikes to target suspected terrorists has come under intense criticism both inside the United States and overseas.

Civilian deaths have angered many of the countries where the United States is struggling to combat extremism, but US President Barack Obama and his administration have defended the practice, saying drone strikes have saved lives in a manner that is less deadly than sending in troops.

"It is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars," Obama said in May. "For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The Obama administration in May acknowledged for the first time that four US citizens had been killed in overseas drone strikes since 2009, including al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was targeted in 2011 in Yemen, and three others who were not targeted by the United States.