Militancy and drones

Published June 16, 2013

THE debate in Pakistan on drone strikes has mostly revolved around two areas. First, that it violates Pakistan’s sovereignty; second, that it creates more jihadis. Both these arguments can easily be defused.

Pakistan’s sovereignty especially in North Waziristan has already been hijacked by non-state militants of various nationalities. There appears to be little concern.

Drone strikes are lethal and violate international law. Our protests are justified. However, our silence over the takeover of parts of Fata by militants running a parallel system of governance conveys a distorted message: we are keen to protect militants and civilians solely from drone strikes, and are not willing to speak up or take action against militants who have killed many Pakistanis, even beheading some among the local population.

Overemphasis on drones alone is counterproductive and misleading. There is no empirical evidence linking the rise in militancy to drone strikes. Pakistan has always tolerated militancy. The radicalisation of the Pakistani youth started in the 1980s and continues to increase. Foreign militants settled in Fata even before the drones arrived. Malakand division saw Fazlullah’s wrath which was not connected to the drones. Sectarian killings have been escalating.

The reasons that are given to denounce drone attacks are weaker than the fact that the attacks are illegal and defy humanitarian law. Their use has raised risks of destruction through long distance combat.

After several years of research, campaigning and lobbying by independent experts and human rights activists, US President Barack Obama had to admit that drones were “a necessary evil” and the use of this technology may not be wise or moral. He, however, insisted that it was legal. The latter assertion has been vehemently challenged by legal experts internationally.

The claim that drone strikes are completely precise is a fallacy. The drone regime is heavily dependent on intelligence, which can often be flawed. Payments are made to informers who are eager to perform without proper verification. In any event, gathering solid evidence in an area that is occupied by armed militias is virtually impossible for ordinary civilian informers.

In conflict situations, truth is always the first casualty and reprisals abound. Chances of killing on hunches are high. The policy of “signature strikes” adopted for drone attacks is based on behaviour patterns of individuals rather than on solid evidence that the victim is a combatant.

There is no transparency in the management, control and oversight of drone strikes. The fact that the strikes are managed and controlled by the CIA, a non-military entity, is by itself illegal. Under international humanitarian law they are not permitted to engage in armed conflict.

Every killing by any state actor must follow an investigation. In the case of drone strikes where there are no boots on the ground such investigation cannot take place. The identity of those killed is mostly not verified.

Pakistan has witnessed some 350 drone strikes but the number of fatalities and injured is not officially known. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent international NGO, claims that from June 2004 through September 2012, over 2,500 people died in drone strikes, of whom 474 to 881 were civilians including 176 children.

Drone strikes have not proved effective in deterring bloodshed. They put the civilian population at greater risk as it remains suspect in the eyes of the militants who may see the people as informers. It tears apart the society it attacks, without protecting innocent civilians from militant reprisals.

Pakistan is not in a position to strike back at drones. This would further endanger its integrity. But the government could raise the level of protest at the UN Human Rights Council and forge partnerships with organisations, institutions and governments that are mounting an effective campaign against the use of drones. Almost all experts are unanimous in their view that in the absence of a legal framework the use of drones is a crime.

An effective lobby requires credible research. The government of Pakistan should collect data and verify the identities of those killed or injured to make a strong case of how the use of drones violates international humanitarian law. The war on terrorism cannot be an open-ended conflict which knows no boundaries and can arbitrarily determine its enemies.

There are several institutions and UN special rapporteurs who have effectively denounced drone technology. An equal number of international experts are committed to restraining the US government from using a technology which could fall into far more unreliable hands. The technology has made security more vulnerable.

An international seminar on the legality of drones should be organised so that Pakistan’s voice is heard in a more coherent manner. An honest debate, rather than emotional outbursts, is likely to carry more influence. A candid debate on the impact of drone strikes cannot take place if the issue is politicised and subject to emotions.

The Pakistani authorities should also undertake research on the fatalities caused by drone strikes to compile a credible data bank on the victims’ identities. The debate should focus on the protection of civilians rather than on painting the combatants as heroes.

The International Crisis Group has aptly concluded: “Distorted through hyper-nationalistic segments of the Pakistani media and hijacked by political hardliners, the domestic Pakistani debate on the impact of drone operations has overshadowed a more urgent discussion about the state’s obligation to its citizens in Fata, who are denied constitutional rights and protections. In the absence of formal courts and law-enforcement institutions, the state fails to protect Fata’s residents from jihadi and other criminal groups.”

Pakistan needs to get rid of both — drone strikes as well as the militants who have perpetuated an atmosphere of terror. Pakistan has to challenge intrusions by another state and militants on its soil. Its integrity cannot be violated by any intruder, state or non-state.

The writer is a lawyer and a human rights activist.

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