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Drone dialogue: Flying in circles?

Transparency and accountability remain out of sight after four major reports question the legality of US drone strikes.

Last updated: 15 Nov 2013 08:21
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The UN recorded at least 450 civilians killed by US drone strikes since 2004 [Getty Images]

Mamana Bibi was tending her crops in northern Pakistan one day in late October 2012. The 68-year-old grandmother was picking okra not far from the family home, when a missile was fired from a remotely piloted aircraft. Bibi was killed instantly, her body torn to pieces just metres away from her young granddaughter, according to a recent report published by Amnesty International.

Four recent major reports have questioned the legality of the United States' drone programme, which has struck targets in several countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia - but it remains unclear how the US will respond to the concerns.

The reports also urge the US to be more transparent about the strikes, and call attention to the attacks' impact on civilians.

Since the release of the reports in late October, US drone strikes have killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, five other suspected fighters in northwestern Pakistan, and five al-Qaeda suspects in Yemen. It is unknown if there were any civilian casualties in those attacks.

But the reports - two by UN Special Rapporteurs and two by human rights groups - say some of the drone strikes constituted unjustifiable attacks on civilians. So far, the US government has released no official number of civilian casualties from its drone programme. The UN, however, has recorded at least 450 civilians killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan since 2004. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated almost double that figure were killed.

The US denies that it indiscriminately targets civilians and defends the drone strikes, saying they are "necessary, legal and just". Yet some legislators have called on the Obama administration to abide by the recommendations put forth in the reports.

On November 5, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a plan by a 13-2 vote that called for more transparency on the use of drones to kill suspected anti-US fighters overseas. The bill, entitled Intelligence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2014, states that the US president should draft and publicise an annual report that defines the total number of combatants and non-combatants killed or injured due to the use of "targeted lethal force".

It was not the first time the committee has urged the US government to declassify details of its drone programme. Earlier this year at CIA Director John Brennan's nomination hearing, California Senator Dianne Feinstein - the chairman of the committee - said it had found the civilian deaths from drone strikes were "typically in the single digits".

She added that she believed it was important to make the actual figures public, but was told that she could not do so because it was classified.

A chamber of secrets

Ben Emmerson and Christof Heyns, two UN human rights investigators, told the UN General Assembly on October 25 that US secrecy about drones was the biggest obstacle to determining their impact on civilians.

Amnesty International's report, titled Will I be next? US drone strikes in Pakistan, reviews 45 known drone strikes that took place in Pakistan's North Waziristan area between January 2012 and August 2013, including the one that killed Mamana Bibi.

Nabila and Zubair Rehman speaking before the US Congress [Reuters]

Her grandchildren, nine-year-old Nabila Rehman and Zubair Rehman, 13, told Al Jazeera that they have lived in fear of drone strikes every day since they witnessed their grandmother being blown to pieces in their fields. Both children were severely injured in the attack.

Nabila and Zubair spoke before the US Congress in Washington DC at the invitation of Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, and gave a first-hand account of the strike along with their father, Rafiq Rehman. But only five members of Congress sat in to hear them, which, according to Grayson, was not unusual for a congressional hearing.

"I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That's why I came here - I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians," Rafiq told Al Jazeera.

The Rehmans' account was the first time civilian victims of drone strikes have testified before the US Congress. While Mamana Bibi was the only one to be killed in that attack, which also injured nine children, Amnesty's report also details how at least 18 labourers were killed in another attack on a remote village soon after.

Moments after the first attack, those who had come to the scene to help were targeted in a second strike, in what Amnesty refers to as "rescuer attacks".

The US has also launched so-called "signature strikes", in which groups of people are attacked solely based on what US intelligence deems to be suspicious activity - although reports have claimed the tactic is no longer used in Pakistan.

"Those are the sorts of attacks that I think produce a higher number of civilian casualties and where the rationale, both practical and legal, is much more problematic," said Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre.

Allegations of 'extrajudicial killings'

Amnesty International has explicitly stated its concern that the attack on the 18 labourers was an "extrajudicial killing", and that the attack may have violated international law. But Mary Ellen O'Connell, an international law expert and professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, said these recent reports "add nothing essential" to the UN's 2003 report on the US' first drone attack outside of an armed conflict zone.

She said the decade-old report on drone strikes by Asma Jahangir, who was then the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, stated "unequivocally that the US killed six individuals unlawfully, including a 23-year-old American".

"No more reports have been needed since 2003 - just a cessation of international killing through the use of military force beyond armed conflict zones," said O'Connell, who chaired an inspection of the application of international law in the 2003 UN report. "The bottom line is that US is not involved in armed conflict in either Pakistan or Yemen. The US has no legal right to use military force in either country."

She added that she would not call the killings war crimes, "because the situations are not war".

"Rather, as the 2003 report suggests, drone killings in both countries are widespread, persistent violations of the human right to life," she said.

Bootless diplomacy

After meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the use of drones was a "continued violation" of Pakistan's territorial integrity and also "detrimental for our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism" from the country.

Pakistani politicians continue to fight for the sovereignty of their country, and have reviewed diplomatic ties with the US and the possibility of blocking NATO supply routes to forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

US drone strikes key issue for Pakistan's government

But Sharif's campaign against drones came amid revelations by the Washington Post newspaper that confirmed what was long suspected: that Pakistan's government was, in fact, complicit with US drone strikes for years, and that top Pakistani officials were privy to classified CIA documents, including information on strikes and casualty counts.

Retired Pakistani army general Talat Masood told Al Jazeera's Inside Story that Pakistani and US diplomatic circles had refused to publicly acknowledge this relationship, fearing a negative public image.

"The intelligence agencies, the military and their civilian leadership, subsequently were all a party to [drone strikes] but they did not want [this] to come in public because they thought that it would be a very bad public relations exercise, and that it will show how weak Pakistan is in allowing its sovereignty to be violated," said Masood.

However, even though many in Pakistan's main cities denounce drone strikes, a report by AFP news agency says a significant number of people in tribal areas support them, but remain silent, fearing reprisal from the Pakistani Taliban.

The drone dialogue comes full circle when questions from victims such as the Rehmans - about why their relative was mistaken as a fighter and targeted by a US drone - remain unanswered, while they continue to live in fear.

"It's just scary to hear that noise of the drone going around 24 hours above where you live," Nabila said.

But with only five members of the US Congress willing to listen to her eyewitness testimony, it seems unlikely that her fears, and those of many other Pakistani children, will be addressed anytime soon by the US - or her own government.

Follow Rahul Radhakrishnan on Twitter: @RahulRadhakris

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Al Jazeera
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