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An MQ-9 drone taking off in Afghanistan
An MQ-9 drone taking off in Afghanistan
Jannis Brühl

NEW YORK — The U.S. government has come in for severe criticism about its use of drones, as many claim that it is violating one of the central tenets of international humanitarian law: Under no circumstances should civilians be the target of military operations. Any country that deliberately crosses that line is guilty of war crimes.

Admittedly, this principle dates back to the 20th century, a time when wars were fought between two armies on a battlefield. Back then it was clear who counted as a soldier. Anyone wearing a uniform was a legitimate target. Anyone else was not.

In modern warfare, however, there are no clearly defined battlefields. Conventional armies fight an opposition that makes bombs in the basements of residential buildings. The line between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly blurred. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross says that the U.S. is justified in attacking “irregular combatants” — farmers who strap on a rifle or students who are drawn into jihad for a few months. The important distinction is that the target must have a sustained involvement.

Washington’s approach to defining combatants has come in for heavy criticism in recent years. All men who have had contact with a known terrorist are “automatically” designated as combatants. U.S. journalist Jeremy Scahill writes in his book Dirty Wars that in certain regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. military classifies every man between 16 and 60 as a potential terrorist. “The number of civilian deaths in drone attacks is small because by definition there are very few civilians,” Scahill says.

One thing is clear, however. Technological developments that allow drones to be more precise in targeting attacks are a positive development for international law. Indeed, this fact is what American officials emphasize in defending the use of drones. But though greater precision often allows the military to differentiate more clearly between combatants and civilians, tragedies still happen.

Unintended targets

Mahama Bibi was picking okra in her family’s field when she was killed by two Hellfire missiles on Oct. 24, 2012. Her three grandchildren were with her as she was torn apart by an American drone attack. Nabeela, 8, and Asma, 7, were also injured. Only Naeema, 5, was physically unharmed, but all three were traumatized. Another grandchild was wounded by a second attack that followed minutes later.

The death of the 68-year-old grandmother is just one of the shocking cases of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes described in Amnesty International’s recent report “Will I be next?” The human rights organization claims that there are no terrorists in Mahama Bibi’s family. Her husband used to be a teacher and three of her sons are also teachers. “We are normal people,” says one son, Rafeequl Bibi.

According to Amnesty’s research, the Pakistani secret service was convinced that a Taliban fighter had been glimpsed in a street near Bibi’s house shortly before the attack. Even if this was the case, the nearest street is more than 280 meters away from the family’s home.

For its report, Amnesty researched 45 drone attacks that took place between January 2012 and August 2013 in the mountainous region of North Waziristan. It cites another example from July 2012, when 18 civilians in Zowi Sigdi came under attack from the skies as they sat down to eat together. Amnesty claims that although they “represented no threat,” the official U.S. report classified them as combatants.

Amnesty International estimates that there have been between 400 and 900 Pakistani civilians killed in drone attacks since 2004, while at least 600 civilians have been “seriously wounded.” UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson gives the number of victims in Pakistan alone as at least 2,200. Amnesty’s report criticizes Pakistan’s government for its “silent support” of the U.S. drone program but also blames Australia, the UK and Germany for making the attacks possible.

On a recent visit to Washington, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif called for an end to drone strikes, a subject the UN General Assembly has also debated. Though President Barack Obama has defended them, there’s no doubt that the use of drones raises uncomfortable questions for a democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

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