Pakistan’s legal fight to end the drone war

As civilian deaths in Pakistan mount from the US drone war, legal groups work to raise awareness – and impose justice.

Predator Drone
Drones, which frequently kill civilians in Pakistan, are operated remotely by the US military and CIA [GALLO/GETTY]

“You cannot call me lucky,” said Sadaullah Wazir as he recounted the events of a drone strike two years ago on his home in North Waziristan.

The strike killed his two young cousins and an elderly wheelchair-bound uncle. It also severed both of then-15-year-old Sadaullah’s legs and cost him the use of an eye, turning a normal family dinner into an otherworldly nightmare and radically altering the path of his young life.

“I had a dream to be a doctor,” he says. “But now I can’t even walk to school.”

Today, Sadaullah is one of an increasing number of Pakistanis who are seeking justice in the courtroom against the orchestrators of a drone campaign which is believed to have killed thousands of their fellow citizens; a huge number of whom recent studies have shown to be innocent civilians.

 Increased US drone strikes questioned

Over the past three years, the steady buzzing of Predator drones overhead has become a grim and terrifying fact of life for many residents of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP). So pervasive is the sense of fear that doctors there report a huge upsurge in the usage of tranquilisers and sleeping pills among the civilian population. Drone strikes are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of a conservatively estimated 2,283 individuals over this period, and the injuries of thousands more, including Sadaullah.

The CIA-administered drone programme has operated largely in the shadows, and has led to what can only be described as a culture of impunity and wantonness with regards to the use of deadly force. A recent Wall Street Journal report on the programme revealed that the majority of drone strikes are “signature strikes”, described as those in which the targets are large groups of people whose identities are not known. In effect, the CIA is killing large numbers of people by aerial remote control in Pakistan without knowing who they are, and it is in this context in which reports have surfaced detailing heavy civilian casualties among the population of the KP.

The Pakistani government, while publicly denouncing the strikes, in fact both acquiesces to and assists in the facilitation of them, while US counter-terrorism chief John Brennan has stated that in his view there “hasn’t been a single collateral death” as a result of the programme. These words and actions from both US and Pakistani officials are indicative of an utter disregard for the observably innocent victims of the drone war. Against this background, a campaign for legal redress and a halt to the bombing has begun.

At the forefront of this effort has been a Pakistan-based NGO, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), led by Islamabad lawyer Shahzad Akbar. Akbar filed the first legal case on behalf of a Pakistani citizen, journalist Karim Khan, whose 18-year-old son and brother were killed in a drone attack on New Year’s Eve in 2009. The criminal complaint for wrongful death ultimately resulted in Pakistan CIA station chief Jonathan Banks fleeing the country, ostensibly to avoid prosecution after his anonymity was compromised.

In July of this year, Akbar, along with the UK-based legal advocacy organisation Reprieve, filed a motion on behalf of families of civilians killed in drone strikes for an international warrant seeking the arrest of former CIA legal director John Rizzo. Rizzo was the individual responsible for approving individual drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, and it was by his consent that Predator drones were given express legal permission to open fire, ostensibly often in those aforementioned “signature strikes”.

FFR and Reprieve are using the legal system to win justice for those individuals upon whose human rights the Pakistani and American governments are effectively trampling. In the words of Akbar, “We are working to help empower those who have no ability to protect themselves and their families from these missiles. It is our duty to ensure that the truth is told”.

At a November meeting in Islamabad convened by Reprieve and FFR, family members of those who had been killed in drone strikes over the past three years met to legally record their grievances and to adopt a resolution calling on the Pakistani government to end the CIA drone war in Waziristan. The message sent home to those attending was to document in detail what was happening to them – every bombing, every piece of shrapnel, every injury and every death – to use as ammunition in the legal fight to stop the bombings.

Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith recounted in harrowing detail his first and last meeting with 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who had enthusiastically volunteered to help gather proof and take photographs in the hope it would help to protect his family. He had been excited about working on the project and was eager to use his computer skills, relatively novel in the region, to upload pictures to the internet for the effort. He lived for less than a week longer:

“On Monday, [Tariq] was killed by a CIA drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.”

The deaths of Tariq, Waheed, the families of Karim Khan, Sadaullah Wazir and countless others are part of an illegal, undeclared war being fought by the CIA in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The CIA is almost wholly protected from public oversight, and the only legal restraint on their actions comes from the efforts of Pakistani NGOs such as the FFR and from advocacy groups such as Reprieve.

By the CIA’s own admission, drone strikes are often carried out without having any knowledge as to who is being killed. So low is the standard of care and so little is the respect for the lives of the people of Waziristan that simply being an individual travelling at night or standing in a large group is enough warrant to be killed by a Hellfire missile fired by an operator sitting thousands of miles away in suburban Nevada. In a reflection of the attitude with which American drone operators view the people in their target sights, the term for human beings, often apparently innocent, who have been killed on their computer monitors is “bugsplat”. Reprieve has taken this as the name of their legal project to stop the drone campaign.

It is often said that terrorists have a disregard for the sanctity of human life. By this standard, the actions of the CIA and its Pakistani government enablers certainly fit the description of terrorism.

The people living in Pakistan’s tribal areas are real people, not faceless, nameless, evil abstractions who can be killed wantonly and forgotten the next day. The KP is one the most isolated and economically neglected corners of the Pakistani state. As such, both the Pakistani and American governments have taken an extremely cavalier attitude towards the deaths of its residents. Casually murdered by remote control planes piloted from across the world, without even a pretense of legal justification, the civilians of Waziristan have little recourse to defend themselves and their families from the industrial-scale carnage which has been unleashed on their region.

The killing of individuals whose names are unknown, against whom no evidence has been provided, and who are able neither to surrender nor identify themselves as friendly to unmanned aerial robots is surely a hideous manifestation of the increasing depravity of the ever-expanding “Global War on Terror”. While the ongoing atrocities in Waziristan are a gross moral failure for the United States, they are also an abdication of the basic duty of the Pakistani government to protect its citizenry and its sovereignty.

It is often said that terrorists have a disregard for the sanctity of human life. By this standard, the actions of the CIA and its Pakistani government enablers certainly fit the description of terrorism. The extrajudicial murder of large numbers of innocent people is not an acceptable by-product of the war in Afghanistan – which itself is largely an elective enterprise today.

The efforts of Reprieve and FFR, coupled with the meteoric rise of Pakistani politician Imran Khan, a fierce opponent of the CIA drone programme, seems indicative of a broader backlash against the grotesque events taking place in the tribal areas. The ongoing legal campaign is a long shot when viewed in the context of achieving criminal convictions against the individuals responsible. People such as Jonathan Banks and John Rizzo can expect to be shielded from responsibility by their government for the deaths they ordered. However, in the opinion of Stafford Smith, “the crucial court here is the court of public opinion”. Documenting and publicising the drone programmes’ human rights abuses are an ends of themselves towards building critical mass to stop it.

Sadaullah and the other innocent victims of the drone war deserve justice, and to be treated with the respect which they were denied when their health and loved ones were taken from them. The ongoing CIA campaign, run without oversight or a solid legal basis, is an affront to the rule of law and to human rights. Terrorising and murdering a civilian population with impunity is an unjustifiable outrage which cannot be rationalised away in the name of strategic imperative – especially when that imperative itself is highly questionable today.

The residents of Waziristan are disenfranchised, isolated and neglected by their federal government. Every day the CIA drone war in the KP continues as a travesty and an affront to the basic human right to live free of the threat of murder. Militant activity is the natural by-product of the elective war still being fought in Afghanistan. Punishing and terrorising the civilians of Waziristan for this is a crime, as well as a tactic which will inevitably fuel further conflict.

The time has come to reign in the drone war, wind down the campaign across the border, and to bring to a close this ugly, painful chapter in history.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics and the “Global War on Terror”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.