THE remotely piloted ‘drone’ has emerged as the ‘weapon of choice’ in US counterterrorism strategy. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that 4,000 people have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Drone attacks have sharply escalated under President Obama, who reportedly selects the ‘targets’ personally.
Throughout history, combatant powers have strived to utilise advanced technologies to defeat their adversaries. According to US officials, drone attacks have been highly successful in killing the top leaders of Al Qaeda and other ‘terrorist’ groups and advanced the goals of counterterrorism.
This is a debatable assertion. The terrorist leaders killed are rapidly replaced. How often has the US declared that it has killed the Number 3, 4 or 5 ranked Al Qaeda leader? The killings are counterproductive. They renew the conviction of the exclusively targeted Muslims that the US is endemically hostile to them. And, the strikes draw fresh recruits for terrorist or militant organisations, especially when civilians are killed.
As the UN rapporteur on terrorism observed, “Some states find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in the future.” Is the US prepared for a drone ‘free for all’ when other powers also master the technology?
The US drone attacks are considered illegal by most of the international community. One, the attacks are being conducted without the consent or despite the opposition of the targeted countries, in violation of the UN Charter. They also violate international humanitarian and human rights law.
Christof Heyns, the UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, reported that the US policy on aerial drones “to carry out targeted killings presents a major challenge to the system of international law” and some strikes “may even constitute war crimes”. He expressed special concern about targeting groups based on patterns of behaviour, rather than specific intelligence: so-called ‘signature strikes’. As regards the Al Qaeda justification, Heyns wrote: “It’s difficult to see how any killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to (events) in 2001.”
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, at a press conference in Islamabad and in her opening statement to the 20th session of the Human Rights Council on June 18 “also expressed serious concern over the continued use of armed drones for targeted attacks”. Even the cautious UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern “about the lack of transparency on the circumstances in which drones are used”.
During the discussion on extra-judicial killings, China made a statement on behalf of 15 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Iran, asserting that the UN Charter and international human rights law — “include the prohibition of extra-judicial and targeted killings on the territories of other countries, in particular through drone attacks or other means”.
Pakistan is the prime victim of the drone attacks. Hundreds of strikes have been conducted on Pakistani territory notwithstanding its repeated official protests to the US and at the UN. According to Pakistani representatives, over 1,000 civilians have been killed in these drone attacks. It appears that Pakistan either does not have the military capability or the political will to interdict the drones. Obviously, it does not want to face the possible US retaliation to such military measures. It can, nevertheless, do a lot to dismantle the intelligence sources which are used by the US in drone targeting and strikes within Pakistan.
If even this is beyond its capabilities or courage, Pakistan should at least pursue a diplomatic or judicial solution to the blatant and continuing violation of its territory and its sovereignty.
Pakistan can present a proposal to the UN Human Rights Council asking the council to declare the unilateral drone attacks contrary to the UN Charter and international humanitarian and human rights law and initiate an independent inquiry into reports of civilian casualties inflicted by such strikes. It can go further and advance this proposal in the UN Security Council, of which Pakistan is currently a non-permanent member.
Alternately, or additionally, Pakistan can seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice declaring the drone attacks illegal; or lodge a formal complaint at the Hague court seeking legal restraint on the drone attacks and compensation for damages and deaths caused thereby.
Such ‘bold’ Pakistani actions are likely to evoke anger in Washington; but it can help to change America’s high-handed use of this distant killer.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.