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Al Jazeera

US says it “strongly disagrees” with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about legality of drone attacks.

The United States has denied its drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere infringed international law and said it did all it could to avoid civilian casualties.

The comments followed the publication of reports on the US drone war by two human rights groups, and came a day before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to bring up concerns about the US counter-terrorism tactic at White House talks.

“We are reviewing these reports carefully,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

“To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree.

“The administration has repeatedly emphasised the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counter-terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.”

Carney also said that by deciding to use drone aircraft against terror suspects, rather than sending in troops or using other weapons, Washington was “choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Earlier Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch unveiled reports detailing civilian casualties in a number of US operations in Pakistan and Yemen.

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Amnesty International

“i wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?”
- Nabeela, eight-year-old granddaughter of US drone strike victim Mamana Bibi

On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.

Earlier, on 6 July 2012, 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of US drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day’s work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.

The use of pilotless aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, for surveillance and so-called targeted killings by the USA has fast become one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in Pakistan.

The circumstances of civilian deaths from drone strikes in northwest Pakistan are disputed. The USA, which refuses to release detailed information about individual strikes, claims that its drone operations are based on reliable intelligence, are extremely accurate, and that the vast majority of people killed in such strikes are members of armed groups such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.

According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured.

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Sarah Knuckey | Just Security

Today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) released two detailed studies of US targeted killings in Yemen and Pakistan, putting forward specific evidence of civilian deaths and legal violations by the United States.

The reports are long (HRW’s is 97 pages, AI’s is 74), address a complex range of issues, and describe their investigations into specific strikes at length. This Just Security post is a guide to the key issues the reports address:

Specific US strikes killed civilians in violation of the law and US policy. These are the first major reports by each organization detailing field investigations into specific strikes. HRW reviewed six strikes in Yemen (occurring between December 2009 and April 2013). HRW concluded that two of the strikes violated international law (pp. 54, 67), four may have (pp. 30, 39, 43, 60), and none of the six appeared to have complied with Obama’s May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (p. 89). AI reviewed all 45 reported Pakistan strikes between January 2012-August 2013, and investigated nine in detail. AI’s legal findings include that “evidence indicates” that an October 2012 strike unlawfully killed a grandmother and injured eight children (p. 23), and AI had “serious concerns” that a July 2012 strike that killed 18 and injured 22 (p. 24) may have been a war crime or extrajudicial execution (p. 27). AI also investigated a number of strikes on apparent rescuers (those who came to the scene of a first strike to help the wounded), which it concluded may have been illegal (pp. 28-30). Neither report seeks to assess the total number or rate of civilian casualties for all strikes.

Key recommendations: transparency, investigations, compensation. The reports contain recommendations to the US, to Pakistan/Yemen, to the international community, and (for AI) to non-state armed groups. Core recommendations to the US include: disclose information about the factual and legal basis for the strikes documented in the reports (AI, p. 58; HRW, p. 93); ensure investigations into the strikes (AI, p. 58; HRW, p. 93); and provide compensation or condolence payments to civilian victims (AI, p. 58; HRW, p. 93).

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