Drones: Hellfire from grey skies

By Ameen Izzadeen
It is only realpolitik that stands in the way of referring the United States to the United Nations Human Rights Council for allegedly committing war crimes and not addressing accountability issues arising from its drone attacks in Pakistan.
The case against the United States has grown so large that it is no longer possible to wink and turn the other way or pretend not to see the atrocity. To do so will raise questions about the civility of the international community. Yet, come March 2014, not a country will have the courage to introduce a resolution against the US in the UNHRC. Even Pakistan, which shows apparent anger and protests at regular US drone attacks on targets in its tribal areas, will not dare to do that, though it may make a token mention of it. Even rivals such as Russia and China or foes such as Iran and Syria, not to mention Sri Lanka which has been taken to task by the US at the UNHRC in two resolutions, will not have the nerve to introduce a resolution calling on the US to address accountability issues. This is because every state – whether it is a friend or foe – understands the quid-pro-quo value of scratching Washington’s back.
But how long can the civilised nations remain silent in the face of damning reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Human Rights Commissioner and several United Nations special rapporteurs?
The US claims human rights have been a cornerstone of American values since the country’s birth and the United States is committed to support the work of the UN in promoting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But its actions, according to the latest reports from human rights groups, prove otherwise, especially in view of its drone attacks.
Many independent analysts have questioned the United States’ claim that its drone attacks are targeted at terrorists and meticulously planned to minimise civilian casualties. Though at times, the drones kill the target, as has been the case in last week’s killing of Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, often the victims have been unarmed civilians.
The drone attacks have raised three key issues that need to be effectively dealt with by the international community: The indiscriminate killing of civilians, the extra judicial killings and the violation of state sovereignty.
International human rights groups such as the London-headquartered Amnesty International and the New York-based Human Rights Watch in recent reports have described the drone attacks that kill civilians as constituting war crimes. Amnesty accused the US of “exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the local region to evade accountability for violations of the right to life.”
The White House has tried to give a lower civilian death toll by saying that there exists a wide gap between the US figures and the data collected by non-governmental organisations. Analysts say the US could show a lower civilian casualty figure because Washington considers “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. In terms of this lopsided criterion to judge who a target is, every male Pakistani is a terrorist and he is considered a civilian only if US intelligence says so after he is dead.
Though the United States has played down the number of civilian deaths in drone attacks, activists put the figure at more than 1,000. Counting the drone dead is a problem because activists and journalists have little access to the tribal regions of Pakistan. Despite mounting evidence of the rising civilian death toll in US drone attacks, US officials insist that most of those killed are militants who use bases in Pakistan to launch attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The drones do not fire bullets from an M-16 machine gun. They fire Hellfire missiles which are capable of carrying internationally banned thermobaric munitions powerful enough to burn through the heaviest tank armour in existence. But houses in Pakistan’s remotest areas are made of bricks, straw and mud. The explosives in the Hellfire missile not only kill the target but also men, women and children who unfortunately happen to be in the vicinity.
The story of the Rehman family who two weeks ago flew 7,000 kilometres to address US congressmen in Washington sheds more light on the horror. “We do not kill our cattle the way the US is killing humans in Waziristan with drones,” said school teacher Rafiq ur Rehman, who lost his mother in a US drone attack. His 13-year-old son Zubair said: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.”
Rehman’s nine-year-old daughter Nabila was out in the field picking okra – ladies fingers – because her grandmother wanted to prepare a sumptuous meal for the Haj festival the following day.
“All of a sudden I heard this ‘dum dum’ noise, and I saw these two white lights come down and hit right where my grandmother was. Everything had become dark, and it was smelling weird. I was really scared and didn’t know what to do; so I started to run, and I just kept running and running.
“I felt some pain in my hand. When I looked, it was bleeding. I tried to bandage it and wipe it with my scarf to stop the bleeding but the blood just kept coming out. I had lost a lot of blood. Next thing I know I ended up in a hospital and it was evening time,” Nabila said.
But sadly, only five congressmen turned up to hear the story of the Rehmans. The absence of a majority of the US lawmakers at the event probably gives credence to the supposition that many in the US believe the killing of civilians and extrajudicial killings are fair game and should be treated as collateral damage. After all, the dead or those dying are not Americans; they are lesser human beings, uncivilised and barbaric. Cleansing them will only make the world more spacious and a better place for the civilised people in the West.
Leave alone receiving any compensation, the victims’ families, devastated as they are like the family members of those killed in the 9/11 attacks have been, do not even get a perfunctory apology. The US Congress has allocated US$ 40 million to pay compensations but not a cent has reached the victimised families, according to peace group Codepink.
These issues apart, the drone attacks, as Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, puts it, present a major challenge to the system of international law. He also said the drone attacks might constitute war crimes and a lack of appropriate transparency and accountability concerning the deployment of drones undermines the rule of law and may threaten international security. UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay expressed similar views in August when she addressed the UN Security Council. She said the current lack of transparency surrounding the use of drones created an accountability vacuum and affected the ability of victims to seek redress.
UN officials speak and human rights groups publish reports detailing atrocities amounting to war crimes and the matter ends there. It is not surprising when the victim states themselves collude with the US in drone strikes. However, the Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan appears to be more vocal than others in its protests and insists that drone attacks which violate its sovereignty should stop. But its protests must transform into a global campaign to restore the fundamental principle enshrined in the UN Charter – the respect for state sovereignty. But how serious is Pakistan?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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2 Responses to Drones: Hellfire from grey skies

  1. Fayaz Moosin says:

    Thank you n sharing. Fayaz

  2. Faiz-ur.Rahman \(Solankili\) says:

    Dear Fayaz:

    Where did you go for Jumma Prayers today? I was at the Grand Mosque and the bayan was about how much the early muslims loved the holy Prophet (saw). Have heard most of it before, but well worth a second and third telling (and hearing).

    Have you seen the TV series OMAR? Supposed to be quite authentic. It is in Arabic but with English sub titles. If you have not seen it, you should ask Omar (Ansar’s son). He has a copy of about 30 episodes. After seeing it you will not say that the Quraish were the most messed up society!!

    Salaams.

    Faiz.

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