If any proof was needed of Pakistan’s consent to drone strikes, it clearly emerges in the Abbottabad Commission report. Nevertheless, Pakistanis still falter at the possibility of their own country allowing the Predator to hover and the Hellfire missiles to destroy. “There were no written agreements [on the drone attacks]. There was a political understanding,” said the report on page 201. This statement validates Pakistan’s — not so tacit — consent to drone strikes. The implications of such evidence are that our country’s argument on drone strikes is based on a false premise: “a violation of our sovereignty”.
We need to understand that with consent professedly given by the host country, i.e., Pakistan, the principle of sovereignty does not apply. If you allow your air space to be used by a foreign country, it is not a breach of state sovereignty. In Pakistan’s case vis-a-vis drone strikes, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict, is applicable because of this very consent, not International Human Rights Law. IHL is the body of international law that attempts to humanise war and armed conflict; hence, an armed conflict should be under way for this regime to be applicable. And this law, like it or not, allows for absolute killing.
My argument on drone strikes in Pakistan is two-pronged. First, the use of drones in this country is legal under IHL because we have allowed another state to use force in our sovereign territory and there is a state of ongoing conflict. I would also argue that force is being used against a ‘shared enemy’. For example, the first reported drone strike in South Waziristan in June 2004 killed Nek Muhammad Wazir, a Pashtun militant, who, according to some, allegedly posed a greater threat to Pakistan.
Second, the ways in which surgical strikes are conducted — not the strikes themselves — violate the law. The Predator surgical strikes do not comply with both the cardinal IHL principle of discrimination as well as that of proportionality, which is explained in the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions 1948. Discrimination requires the state using force to distinguish between the military and civilians. Meanwhile, the proportionality requirement limits the permissible level of force based on the threat posed. The proportionality principle also necessitates that targeting decisions in military operations avoid civilian causalities that are excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.
The status quo on drone strikes cannot be acceptable. The United States cannot conduct a surgical-strike operation without transparency, accountability and fact-finding investigations. Meanwhile, Pakistan cannot continue to turn its face away from the civilian casualties and the resultant fallout. These surgical strikes are driving terrorists into the country’s cities, particularly Karachi. The unabated and unreported civilian casualties are also breeding more terrorists and increasing the number of sympathisers. Ms Riffat, a teacher at a government school on the outskirts of Karachi, found out that one of her students was killed in a drone strike when he went to visit his village in North Waziristan. She later learned that the boy’s family, dejected with the heart-wrenching incident, took out all his brothers and cousins, who studied in the same school, from the primary education system and sent them to a madrassa. This is one of the many unaccounted for eventualities in the drone saga that the Pakistani state cannot ignore anymore. Pakistan needs to stop denying that it is not on board with the drone programme. It is an open secret that the country’s leadership has given its full assent to the drone programme.
Both Pakistan and the US need to own the drone campaign and make amends. For Pakistan, the task is more challenging; introspection is never easy, especially for a country with many skeletons in the closet. Nonetheless, Pakistan needs a reset button on its stance on the drone programme.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.
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