Are the drone strikes in Waziristan war crimes?

With questions continuing to be asked over the war in Afghanistan, freelance journalist Daniel Furr asks whether US drone strikes in Waziristan are war crimes.

Following our article on ‘force projection’ in Afghanistan earlier today, freelance journalist Daniel Furr questions whether recent US drone strikes in Waziristan in neighbouring Pakistan are war crimes

Since 2004 the mountainous Waziristan region of Pakistan has been subjected to numerous drone strikes and insurrections into its territory. In the six-year period 179 attacks have resulted in the deaths of 1,825 individuals; the majority are alleged insurgents, but at least 500 deaths are civilian.

Pakistan was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks and nor has the country carried out military action against the NATO forces in Afghanistan, or any NATO countries. There is little to justify military operations against a people who are not responsible for the atrocities of Al Qaeda or the Taleban yet drone operations are rapidly increasing.

The policy of targeting militants does not work and results in the accumulation of civilian deaths. Israeli forces have shown that the moral outrage and disgust does not legitimise missile strikes on built-up civilian areas. A significant portion of the operations became propaganda victories for Hamas and increased their support within the region. It does nothing to win the hearts and minds of those we wish to protect and liberate.

Fundamentally all drone attacks violate international law and are war crimes. Firstly, NATO has not declared war on Pakistan or vice versa and Pakistani officials have protested to the UN regarding the increasing violation of their territory; secondly, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has questioned the legality of the operations and protested against the justification of targeting civilian areas to neutralise militants.

Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states:

“Art. 53. Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organisations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

Cooperation with Pakistan intelligence and military could lead to the capture or neutralisation of allege targeted individuals without the destruction of villages and civilian life. However, the United States has rejected the proposal with the CIA insisting a drone strike gives the element of surprise. It is not necessary to hold an entire geographical area responsible for the actions or associations of a single individual.

The Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010, was released by WikiLeaks and caused controversy among the NATO allies because of the systemic cover up over the loss of civilian life. Ninety thousand leaked US military files were disclosed to the public arena, for our consumption, and evidence of war crimes emerged within the current military operations in Afghanistan. One could write pages of alleged incidents of shootings, air strikes and abuse but it is clear NATO were aware of potential violations of international law and war crimes.

US State Department legal advisor Harold Koh insisted, in March this year, that drone operations, or any other military action in Pakistan, is an act of self-defence under international law. This is incorrect. As I said earlier, Pakistan has not directly attacked the United States of America. Therefore it is impossible to retaliate to an action that did not take place.

The Brookings Institution, in July 2009, contradicted the US State Department by calculating that one militia fatality resulted in ten civilian deaths for each drone attack and even made reference to the difficulty of interpreting international law in America’s favour. Article three of the Fourth Geneva Convention gives validity to the case for war crimes because the failure to protect non-combatants during each drone attack and the policy of targeted killing is effectively assassination.

Under the Article, these non-combatants have been murdered because the village, which they are residents too, is the target of the said action.

With the drafting of exit strategies from Afghanistan and delegating security operations to the native population it is clear that grotesque crimes have been committed during this period. The drone strikes highlight the blatant disregard for human life in combating international terrorism and protecting our national security. In this nine year conflict it is reported that civilian deaths equate to 14,000 – 34,000 and this is the current best estimate, with the Afghan government suggesting figures within the hundreds of thousands.

Without independent investigations, carried out under the authority of the United Nations, civilian fatalities will be repressed and downgraded to depict a much more “friendly” vista for the viewer. More worryingly, the civilian deaths from drone strikes are not investigated or documented by the CIA (who are responsible for the operations.)

One does understand that civilians are caught up in the conflict of modern warfare but it does not justify a strategy of ignorance towards human settlements. The policy of targeted killing is a war crime and those responsible most be held accountable by the international community.

• See also: Watching the watchkeepers: Why regulate drones? by Andrew Gibson, published on Left Foot Forward on August 7.

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