US Opposition to Drone Use Growing

drone victims pakistan

Pakistani tribesmen protest US drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region on February 25, 2012. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past month opposition to CIA drone strikes has started to gather pace as lawmakers in the US have finally started to look more critically at the program.

On Tuesday twenty-six House Representatives – including Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Ron Paul (R-TX), John Conyers (D-MI) and Michael Honda (D-CA) – wrote a bipartisan letter to the White House expressing concern about the use of ‘signature strikes’, and the legal basis under which they are conducted, telling the President:

“The use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States.”

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Drones: The Known Knowns

Pakistan drone attack

Pakistani tribesmen carry the coffin of a person allegedly killed in a US drone attack. (Photo by THIR KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday John Brennan, the President’s adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, popped up at the Woodrow Wilson Center to give a major policy speech on the “ethics and efficacy” of drone use.

Brennan’s argument had two main planks: That drones work and that their use is entirely legal. Both claims deserve close examination because neither is quite as simple as it seems.

In a classic rhetorical device Brennan threw out perhaps the most contentious aspect of his analysis as though it was a given, stating that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces.”

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Eric Holder Unveils 'The Cake Doctrine'

Holder Discusses Obama Administration's Counterterrorism Efforts

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Discusses Obama Administration's Counterterrorism Efforts at Northwestern Law School March 5, 2012 (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)

Speaking yesterday at Northwestern University the Attorney-General Eric Holder set out the clearest intellectual framework so far for the Obama administration’s evolving counterterrorism doctrine.

All good doctrines need a name and so I am going to take this opportunity to propose one for President Obama’s approach: ‘The Cake Doctrine.’

As in wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

The Cake Doctrine is an advance on the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive self-defense in that President Obama has more faith in the courts and our system of justice than his predecessor did.

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The Man in the Mirror

Unmanned drones are only one tool states are using to commit assassinations and murder. © AFP/Getty Images

On a warm autumnal morning last month, three men lounging outside a mosque in Istanbul were chopped down with military precision by a burst of automatic fire.

The gunman took the time to make sure none of his targets had survived, firing a bullet at point blank range into the head of each victim as they lay sprawled on the ground.

The three dead men – Rustam Altemirov, Zaurbek Amriyev and Berg-Khakh Musayev – were all Chechens. A Russian arrest warrant had been issued for Amriyev in connection with the January 2011 bombing of Moscow airport, which claimed 35 lives. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

While We Read About Drones, Civilians Are Suffering in Pakistan

Amnesty International recently released a new report and website on human rights abuses in northwest Pakistan. This posting is part of our Eyes on Pakistan blogging series.

We have written extensively on this blog about the human rights crisis in northwest Pakistan over the last few weeks. The northwest region of the country is covered on a daily basis in the mainstream media. However, the focus in reporting is on counter-terrorism issues, and no attention is given to the impact of the conflict on civilian communities who live in the area. You just have to check today’s news to find that the top stories in regard to Pakistan are on a new drone strike and the five Americans who were recently convicted on terrorism charges.

To counter this trend and to change the debate about northwest Pakistan in the US media, we are launching the Eyes on Pakistan Writing Contest. Since this is such a frequent topic, we encourage you to challenge the current media reporting and raise human rights concerns in northwest Pakistan by writing op-eds, letters to the editors, blog entries or news stories on the human rights crisis in northwest Pakistan (Take a look at this example). The best entries will receive a Flip HD camera and get a chance to be re-published on this blog and the Eyes on Pakistan website!

We are providing enough resources to get you started, and you should especially check out our new website Eyes on Pakistan. Through the Eyes on Pakistan project, we have a powerful new tool to track and monitor the human rights situation on the ground. Policy makers from Islamabad to Washington would be well advised to heed the alarming trends it demonstrates. Eyes on Pakistan reveals the human toll of a conflict that is all too often described in the abstract. The site presents irrefutable proof that northwestern Pakistan has become the scene of a grave human rights and humanitarian crisis.

Change the debate now: Start writing and send us your published piece.

US Must not Turn Blind Eye to Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan

This piece was originally posted on Huffington Post.

“I lost my sense when I reached the door of my house and saw and heard the crying of my close neighbors and relatives—as if hell fell on me. When I saw people putting the dead bodies of my children, parents, and other relatives in bed I couldn’t bear it anymore and fell on the ground…”

A 25-year-old man who lost nine family members when two shells fired by security forces hit his house during the battle of Loi Sam (FATA).

A young girl from Maidan flees her village carrying her younger brother on her back, they are trying to escape the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in Lower Dir, North West Frontier Province, 27 April 2009. (c) AI

This shocking testimony by a resident of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) is a reminder that it is civilians who suffer as a consequence of the fighting between the Taleban and Pakistani government forces in northwest Pakistan. In the United States, this conflict is too often described from a pure counter-terrorism angle: “For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” President Obama forgot to mention that this region is also home to millions of people, who do not support or take part in the violence and are simply trying to farm, raise livestock, weave fabrics, transport goods, raise families, build, repair, or teach.

We too rarely hear their stories. They give a human face to the suffering of millions of Pakistanis in the northwest tribal areas.

The consequence of this ignorance is that today many of the residents in northwest Pakistan live in a human rights free zone  where they have no legal protection by the government and are subject to horrific abuses by the Taleban. Unfortunately, many areas of northwest Pakistan now resemble the Taleban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The world should be alarmed by the way living conditions have deteriorated under the increasingly brutal control of the Pakistani Taleban and its allied insurgent groups; instead, the suffering of the people of this area has been largely ignored, sacrificed in the name of geopolitical interests. Most disturbing is the fact that civilians are increasingly hit on three different fronts: by the Taleban, by the Pakistani army and by U.S. Drone strikes.

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Modern Warfare 2

The New York Times reported this morning that in the past two years the US military has killed more than 400 militants in 80 drone strikes for the loss of only 20 civilian casualties.

Pentagon sources credit the increased sophistication of modern weapons systems and intelligence collection platforms for this record of success. This is a bold claim and one that Amnesty International has been trying to investigate on the ground in a very hostile operational environment.

At present, reliable facts are hard to come by. However, we can say with the confidence derived from hard-earned experience that these numbers are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny. A similar conflict in which airborne platforms have been used by a sophisticated modern military to target insurgent and other armed groups is the second Intifada which engulfed the Gaza Strip in September 2000.

Between September 2000 and September 2002 Israel’s intelligence-led policy of targeted killing claimed the lives of approximately eighty Palestinian militants and fifty innocent bystanders.

In one well-documented incident in July 2002 the Israelis dropped a laser-guided bomb on a house occupied by Hamas official Salah Shahada. Shahada was killed along with thirteen others, ten of whom were children.

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The Guardian 'Gaza War Crimes Investigation' – 3 videos

Hermes 450 unmanned drone used by Israel.

Hermes 450 unmanned drone used by Israel.

The Guardian website posted three incredible videos March 23rd by Clancy Chassay, Christian Bennett, Sarah Brodbin, Maggie O’Kane and Mustafa Khalili.  The Guardian team conducted their own investigations into some of the charges that Israel committed war crimes during the Gaza offensive.

The first video covers the use of precision weapons, many fired by unmanned drones, to attack civilians.  Amnesty International mentioned these drones in their report ‘Fuelling conflict: Foreign arms supplies to Israel/Gaza’.  The fact that these unmanned drones are used to attack as well as surveillance is a fact usually censored by the IDF on Israeli reporters and foreign reporters based in the region.

The second video deals with allegations by both sides of human shielding.  Amnesty issued a report on how both Israel and armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, were using military tactics that endangered civilians.  Chassay also mentions the deadly campaign that Hamas undertook during the crisis to injure and kill ‘collaborators’ and political opponents which Amnesty also investigated.

The third video shows footage of attacks on medical personnel while trying to tend to wounded and attacks on hospitals and medical facilities.  Amnesty also covered this issue in the blog, LiveWire and in a report.  [Donatella Rovera, senior researcher for AI on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, posted blog entries while on the fact finding mission to southern Israel and the Gaza Strip.]

Faulty Intelligence, Wanton Recklessness, or a Combination of the Two

(As originally posted to Livewire)

1 February 2009: A 13-year-old girl who was asleep in her bed; three primary school-age boys who were carrying sugar canes; two young women on their way to a shelter in search of safety; a 13-year-old boy on his bicycle; eight secondary school students who were waiting for the school bus to take them home; an entire family sitting outside their home – these are among the many victims of missiles fired from Israeli UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), commonly known as drones.

Here in Gaza people call the drones “zannana”, an onomatopoeic description reflecting the buzzing sound that they emit as they fly overhead. Their main function is surveillance, but, in recent years, Israeli forces have also used them to fire missiles, often to assassinate “wanted” Palestinians.

An Israeli journalist told us that the military censor does not permit Israeli media to publish any reference to strikes by drones. These missiles seem to be very precise, with a relatively small but concentrated radius. Yet, they have killed or injured hundreds of civilians, including many children, though the reason for this – whether due to faulty intelligence, wanton recklessness, or a combination of the two – is unclear.

In many of the cases we investigated, we found a consistent pattern: each missile is packed with tiny metal cubes that increase its lethal effect. These are blasted with extreme force, penetrating through metal doors and steel pylons and embedding deep into concrete walls.

Today, we visited the place where a missile fired from a drone killed two women and three children from the same family on the morning of 15 January. It was in a Bedouin village on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya, in north Gaza. Those killed were three children, their mother and their grandmother.

The family’s home had been destroyed some 10 days earlier by the blast from a powerful air strike that apparently targeted a nearby tunnel. After this, the family had gone to stay with relatives across the road. The two women and three children were killed by the missile when they returned to the remains of their home to retrieve some of their possessions.

Earlier, we investigated several other cases in the Khan Yunis area, in the south of the Gaza Strip. There, the latest drone attack had occurred on 29 January, despite the 11-day-old ceasefire, in the centre of Khan Yunis.

The target, it seems, were two suspected Palestinian militants who were riding a motorcycle. They were hit and injured, but so too were 16 civilians, almost all of them children, as might have been predicted considering the location and time of the missile strike.

It was launched at a point opposite the hospital, only a few metres distant from the entrance to a UN primary school and directly in front of a row of food stalls. The attack was launched at 11.30am, just as children were leaving school at the end of the morning lessons.

On 2 January, three boys from the al-Astal family – eight-year-old Abderrabbo, his brother Mohammed, aged 11, and Abd-al-Sattar al-Astal, also just 11 – were killed by a missile fired from a drone while collecting sugar cane in al-Qarara, north-east of Khan Yunis. At the scene, we again found metal posts peppered with the signature square holes from the shrapnel blasted from the drone missile.

Another characteristic of these missiles is a small hole that penetrates deep into the ground, leaving few remains. We asked to borrow a shovel from local farmers in order to dig down and try to recover any remains from the missile. At this, some village youths stepped up enthusiastically and began to dig into the sandy ground.

Some six feet down, they recovered small parts of the circuit board and other shards of the missile. We urged the children’s family to hold on to these and keep them safe, as possible evidence to be considered in any future investigation.

Originally posted to Livewire by Donatella Rovera, Middle East & North Africa Researcher at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London