US drone strikes are controversial, but are they war crimes?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. When US officials discuss drone strikes -- if they discuss them at all -- they emphasize the effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles to hunt and kill terrorism suspects in faraway places.

Well, a new report by Amnesty International paints a more disturbing picture. The rights group examined nine drone attacks that took place in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan since January last year. The attacks resulted in several civilian deaths, people who Amnesty says were not involved in fighting and posed no threat, and it says those deaths may constitute war crimes.

Naureen Shah is an advocacy adviser with Amnesty International Washington. What evidence did you find to support the position that there were unlawful killings in Pakistan from drone strikes?

Naureen Shah: You know, Pakistan is a place that is full of speculation and a lot of rumors about what's happening in drone strikes, and this is a heavily politicized issue, so Amnesty International took great care in assembling separate teams to go in and interview people in the very dangerous parts of North Waziristan where these strikes were occurring.

What we found was disturbing. A 68-year-old grandmother was killed while gathering vegetables in a large vacant field. We don't have any indication that she was involved in posing an imminent threat to the United States or was involved in a militant group. In another strike that we documented, 18 laborers were killed. One of them was a 14-year-old boy. They were gathered for a meal at the end of the day. An initial strike occurred, a second one, and many people were killed.

Werman: I mean, US officials claim that interviews with locals don't provide accurate number of civilian casualties or information, because relatives or acquaintances of the dead refuse to admit that the victims were involved in militant activities. It's like a taint.

Shah: Well, you know, the US government wouldn't provide us any information about these cases, and we did write letters requesting information. The Pakistani government officials that we met with made some allegations about involvement, but when we investigated those -- and we investigated them very carefully -- we found that it would be hard to imagine that a 68-year-old grandmother was involved with a militant group. There was no one else in the area where she was struck, and she was in a large vacant field. That raises questions about what the US government is doing.

Werman: We're about to hear, Naureen, that Pakistan's own military leaves many dead civilians in its wake when they attack extremists, more so than US drones. So how confident are you that your data lines up with the reality on the ground?

Shah: The Pakistani military has committed serious abuses, including indiscriminate killings in these same areas. An additional problem is that militant groups pose a huge threat to local civilian populations, and have committed human rights abuses. We're calling on the Pakistani government to hold these groups accountable for the abuses that they've perpetrated, and hold their own members of the military accountable as well.

Werman: So, Naureen, one of the most provocative parts of the report is this idea that US drone strikes may constitute war crimes. Can you take that apart for us? What part of the drone operation is a war crime?

Shah: We documented a disturbing trend of what we call rescuer attacks. These are attacks where the initial strike occurs, killing some individuals and wounding others. Before the second strike, groups of civilians will rush in the protect the injured, provide them aid.

Now, we're not sure that all of those individuals are civilians, but certainly they're rushing in to provide medical assistance. Then, ten minutes after the initial strike, a second strike occurs. That, in the case that we have documented, resulted in killings of civilians and killing of wounded individuals, which could amount to a war crime if done intentionally.

Werman: What about the wisdom among Washington policy-makers that drones are a necessity? They prevent troop casualties, excessive troop casualties. You can launch an operation with relative ease, quickly and cheaply. What's the alternative?

Shah: Our policy isn't in opposition to drone technology, per se. Drone technology is rapidly proliferating. Other governments around the world are going to be acquiring it. The question is, what kind of message is the US government sending about its own use of drones? Is it sending the message that this technology should be used to evade accountability, to conduct killing secretly, or does the US government want to send a message that this drone technology can be used in a way that complies with international law?

Werman: Naureen Shah is an advocacy adviser with Amnesty International in Washington. Thanks very much for your time.

Shah: Thank you.

Werman: Government officials in Pakistan have denounced American drone attacks as a violation of their sovereignty. The strikes are also intensely unpopular with the general public, but that's not the case with all Pakistanis.

Muhammad Zubair: I have been witness to the aftermath of a couple of drone attacks that took place in my village, and we know that in those places, there were these international terrorists from all around the world living there, involved in making IEDs that were being sent off [xx]. So my personal logic as far as that goes, we know that the drone attacks have been taking out dangerous terrorists.

Werman: That's Muhammad Zubair. He's a Ph.D law student at Indiana University, and he's from the volatile tribal area of South Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan. Zubair says people back home have strong feelings about the attacks.

Zubair: There's a marked difference between the opinion of the people who have been on the ground in the areas where these drone attacks have been taking place, and those who have been living in the comfort zones of the big cities, Faisalabad, Lahore, and Karachi. Those people who have been on the ground, in fact, they have been always very happy with these drones precisely for the reason that they have been taking out very dangerous terrorists who have the blood of hundreds and thousands of people on their hands.

And then the people from the same area also make a comparison between what the Pakistan army and the Air Force has been doing in the last so many years, and what drones have been doing. We see that the army operations have resulted in indiscriminate killings. They have resulted into hundreds of villagers having been wiped out from the face of the earth, and now when I see my village, it doesn't exist any more on the Google Earth.

Werman: You said that the people in South Waziristan are happy with these drones. I just wondering, though, even though there have been scores of dead civilians who, we hear, have nothing to do with international terrorism. They're still happy with the drone strikes?

Zubair: I would always question this identification of certain civilian being killed in those attacks, the reason being very simple. It's a standard operating procedure of these terrorists that whenever any drone attack takes place, the terrorists and this militant scum surround this area. They do not even allow the local people for help purposes, that they would come and take out, you know, the bodies.

The only reason is that they don't want the identity of those targeted in these attacks, they don't want the identity to be known to the public. So in the presence of this iron curtain wrapped around these tribal areas, I do not exclude the possibility of certain civilians having been killed, but then at the end of the day, it's a war. In war, there are collateral damages, no doubt.

Werman: The other thing that intrigued me, something you said a moment ago, that the Pakistani army themselves -- they're going into Waziristan and they're carrying out raids. As you said, indiscriminately, they're killing civilians. So, I don't want to compare who's more guilty, but from your own research, how does a US drone strike compare with the attacks staged by Pakistan's own army?

Zubair: This is exactly the point of frustration that people remain silent over: What the Pakistan Air Force has been doing. There was this lady, old lady, in 2011, when I was involved in relief activities when these people came from Waziristan. This old lady was telling me the difference between the two. She said that when [xx], they call it in the local language, when drone attacks come, everybody continues their life as usual because they go after the [xx], as she call them.

When the Pakistan army plane comes, everybody gets to the shelter, because there is no discrimination between [xx] civilians and-- and then, people are very intelligent. They make this analysis. They say, "Well, after this much bombing by the Pakistani army, why not a single terrorist has been eliminated or taken out?

Then, on the other hand, the drone attacks has resulted into taking out people like Baitullah Mehsud, whose atrocities the local people have been suffering for years and years. So people are very happy for whoever has taken out, for example, Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain, who was the [xx] master of suicide bombers.

Werman: Muhammad, it sounds like what you're saying is that you disagree with the Amnesty International charge that the US drone strikes may classify as a war crime, and it's Pakistan that's committed the war crime. Is that what you're saying?

Zubair: Exactly! Exactly that is my point that I want to make. I mean, the Waziristanis, myself, or other Waziristanis would be very happy to see their own government, their own state, coming in, eliminating those terrorists, cleaning those areas, launching development, building schools, bringing in jobs, but the problem is, it's the question of willingness.

Pakistan does not want to clean these areas. It still has an eye on using these terrorist groups as a tool of foreign policy in Afghanistan and against India post-2014.

Werman: Muhammad Zubair is a law student at Indiana University. He's from South Waziristan, a part of Pakistan...

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.