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US Drone Strikes Under Fire As UN Commissioner Denounces Civilian Deaths

US Drone Strikes Under Fire As UN Commissioner Denounces Civilian Deaths

As the United States continues its practice of unmanned drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and reaching as far as the Philippines, a high ranking United Nations official is questioning the legality of the attacks as it relates to the U.S. Constitution and international law. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said a full investigation into drone strikes, particularly those seen in Pakistan, is a necessary measure to study whether they comply with international law.

A recent report noted that 27 people in Pakistan were killed by drone strikes over a three-day span. The U.S. justifies the strikes in Pakistan by saying the country has become a destination for high-risk terrorist suspects from neighboring countries. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. has no plan to scale down or halt drone strikes in the region and that they will continue.

“It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is a safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan,” Panetta said.

New America Foundation, an American think tank, says the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reported 14 drone strikes in Pakistan over the past five-and-a-half months and the CIA has said it plans to expand its use of drones in the region.

One Pakistani official said the attacks are detrimental to potential peace talks between the U.S. and Pakistan, and that increased strikes in the country will only fuel the flames of hostility.

“They are trying to send a message: ‘If you don’t come around, we will continue with our plan, the way we want to do it,’” said retired Pakistani intelligence chief Javed Ashraf Qazi. It’s “superpower arrogance being shown to a smaller state. … But this will only increase the feeling among Pakistanis that the Americans are bent on having their way through force and not negotiation.”

For Pillay, the UN investigation of drone usage by the U.S. in Pakistan would look into civilian deaths and that she calls “indiscriminate” killing. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has tabulated civilian deaths due to drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

From 2004-2012, the bureau estimates that anywhere from 482-832 civilians have been killed by U.S. strikes, with an estimated 175 of those being children. Figures for civilian deaths are difficult to account for because recent reports suggest that the Obama Administration deceptively uses the word “militant” when labeling those killed in drone strikes. A recent New York Times article cited administration officials as saying that it labels “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” to reduce the number of reported civilian casualties.

At a news conference in Islamabad, Pillay said the practices are blatant human rights violations and reiterated what UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called for, in that countries should be “more transparent” about their usage of unmanned aircraft and what situations constitute a drone strike.

“Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law,” Pillay said.

“The principle of distinction and proportionality and ensuring accountability for any failure to comply with international law is also difficult when drone attacks are conducted outside the military chain of command and beyond effective and transparent mechanisms of civilian or military control.”

Pakistani officials would seem to agree with Pillay, as they have stated that the attacks are “illegal” and violate the country’s sovereignty.

Pillay said the UN would support a probe into the practice of drone killings on the grounds of upholding international law and protecting human rights.

“I see the indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians in any circumstances as human rights violations,” Pillay said. “ … I suggested to the government that they invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions and he will be able to investigate some of the incidents.”

During May’s NATO Summit demonstrations in Chicago, thousands of protesters took to the streets, many denouncing the U.S.’s role in drone usage, both internationally and domestically. Some chanted: “Who are these people? They look like they’re doing something bad from 3,000 feet. Whoops, killed some innocent people. Oh well!”


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