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Drone strikes: shirking justice

October 22, 2013

AS dusk fell on the village of Zowi Sidgi in July last year, a group of labourers gathered after a long day’s work. Some sold wood for a living, others worked in the local chromite mine — after work they all usually had tea together.

Drones were circling in the skies overhead, but this was nothing unusual in North Waziristan — the region of Pakistan that has seen more drone strikes over the past decade than any other since the US ‘targeted killings’ programme started.

But this evening was different. Suddenly a barrage of missiles hit the tent where the men had gathered, killing at least eight people instantly. Amid the ensuing chaos, some villagers ventured to where the tent once was to search for survivors among the dismembered bodies, only to be caught in a second missile strike. In total, 18 people were killed in drone strikes that evening, including Saleh Khan, a 14 year-old boy who sold wood cut from the local forests.

What little media reporting there has been of the strike cited anonymous ‘official’ sources as saying that those killed in the strikes were ‘militants’, linked to the Taliban. But the extensive research Amnesty International has conducted into this strike indicates that most, if not all the victims, were labourers, that they were not involved in fighting and did not pose any ‘imminent threat’ to the US.

As such, it appears that the labourers were unlawfully killed by the US. But no one has yet been held accountable. The US government has not even acknowledged the killings, let alone explained them, apologised or ensured justice or compensation for the families. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.

The US drone programme has become a defining human rights issue for our era, in Pakistan and the rest of the world. Today, Amnesty International is launching Will I be next?, a major report on drone strikes in Pakistan. It is one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on this topic from a human rights perspective. The report is based on painstaking research in a dangerous, complicated and highly politicised environment. Amnesty examined the reported 45 US drone strikes in North Waziristan between January 2012 and August 2013.

Our findings indicate that the US has carried out unlawful killings in Pakistan through drone attacks, some of which could even amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions. In another case we documented, 68-year old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike in front of her grandchildren while picking vegetables in the family fields. It is hard to fathom how she could have been mistaken for a fighter.

Our report calls on the US to open up its secretive and unaccountable drone programme to public scrutiny, and to ensure independent and impartial investigations into strikes that appear to constitute unlawful killings.

Successive promises by President Barack Obama and other senior US officials to increase transparency have effectively amounted to a ‘trust us’ approach while the administration continues to withhold basic facts about drone killings and their legality.

But while the anger many in Pakistan feel towards the US over drone strikes is understandable, we cannot forget Pakistan’s own role in compounding the suffering of the people of North Waziristan.

This is a region where locals are squeezed from all sides — by abuses from militant groups like the Taliban, by the Pakistani military, and by US drone strikes. Our report also documents the failure of the Pakistan state to protect the human rights of people in North Waziristan. This ranges from deaths, injuries and displacement of residents due to bombardment by the military, to the absence of justice mechanisms and lack of adequate medical assistance.

Pakistan’s own stance towards US drone strikes is ambiguous. True, the government has always maintained its opposition — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dedicated much of his first speech to denouncing drone strikes as a violation of sovereignty. But Amnesty International is concerned that some officials and institutions in Pakistan are assisting the US in carrying out drone strikes that constitute human rights violations.

Pakistan has a duty towards victims of drone strikes too, including providing adequate access to justice and other remedies. And, crucially, the Pakistani government must publicly disclose the information it has gathered on drone strikes and the US targeted killings programme. Unless a light is shed on the dark shadows of this lawless and remote area, all sides fighting there will be free to commit abuses with impunity.

While researching the case of Zowi Sidgi, I spoke to an eyewitness about his friend Bangal Khan who was killed in the strike. Recalling the 28-year old father of four who was known for his sense of humour and his love for singing ghazals, his friend broke down as he spoke of the bereaved family’s suffering. “Now his orphan children have no one to support them,” he told me. “We’d just talk about this and that and he’d make everyone in the village laugh. He was a very kind man and very sociable, I miss him a lot.”

For too long Bangal Khan and other victims of drone strikes and other violence in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been nameless and their families left without any hope of justice. There are serious security challenges in North Waziristan, but these concerns, real or perceived, must not and cannot be fixed by crushing the lives of ordinary people in the tribal areas.

The writer is Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher.