Amnesty International: Civilian deaths in drone attacks akin to war crimes

Published: October 22, 2013
Rights group catalogues many unaccounted casualties in North Waziristan.

Rights group catalogues many unaccounted casualties in North Waziristan.


“I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?” Eight-year-old Nabeela witnessed the death of her grandmother, Mamana Bibi, by a drone strike in Ghundi Kala village, North Waziristan. She asks the quintessential question surrounding the debate on drones.

Therefore, Amnesty International’s report on US drone strikes in Pakistan is duly titled “Will I Be Next?” The report, to be released today (Tuesday), does not claim to be a comprehensive report; but it is a qualitative assessment based on detailed field research into nine of the 45 reported strikes in North Waziristan between January 2012 and August 2013.

The report focuses on the arbitrary deprivation of life, categorically stating – and proving with its case studies, survey and fact-finding – that the “United States has carried out unlawful killing in Pakistan through drone attacks, some of which could even amount to war crimes.”

No matter which international law regime is applicable – be it international human rights law or international humanitarian law (the laws of war) – it is obligatory for United States to ensure thorough, impartial and independent investigations are conducted into the killings.

The United States refuses to make public even basic information about the drone programme and does not release legal or factual information about specific strikes, the report points out. “None of the US authorities contacted by Amnesty International (AI) were willing to provide information regarding the specific cases documented in this report or the legal and policy basis for the drone programme in Pakistan.” It doesn’t stop there. The report also envelopes in other states as well, pinning responsibility on them of upholding international law. The United States and other countries, including Australia, Germany and the UK, that are “providing assistance must act in full conformity with their obligations”.

Location of nine US drone strikes in North Waziristan investigated in detail by Amnesty International. *Names and boundary representations do not necessarily constitute endorsement by Amnesty International. MAPS AND IMAGES COPYRIGHT CREDIT: © AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

Pakistan: not exactly a victim?

Moreover, Amnesty International does not absolve Islamabad of a role in the drone operations either. AI expresses concern in the report about the “failure of the Pakistani authorities to protect and enforce the rights of victims of drone strikes”.

According to the publication, Pakistan stands accused of a range of human rights failings: from the possible complicity of some organs or officials of the Pakistan state in unlawful killings resulting from the US drones programme, to the failure to protect people in Fata from unlawful drone strikes or to assist victims.

Although the writers of the report thank the government of Pakistan for their support and cooperation, they do mention, “None of the authorities answered questions regarding specific drone strikes or the possible role of some Pakistani officials or private citizens in the US drone programme”.

Precision weapons: not precise enough?

At the centrepiece of the report is the unlawful and unexplained killing of non-combatants. Clearly, the drones are missing ‘targets’ and there is no proof or identification of whether the people who are hit are genuine militant targets or not.

“We cannot find any justification for these killings. There are genuine threats to the US and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances. But it is hard to believe that a group of labourers, or an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all,” said Mustafa Qadri, an AI Pakistan researcher.

And there is no explanation or remorse either. Who is killed and why are unknowns. This secrecy has enabled the United States to act with impunity and block victims from receiving justice, the report claims.

Through this publication, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch jointly call on the US Congress to investigate the cases documented and other unlawful deaths and to disclose evidence of human rights violations to the public.

Elderly woman killed, grandson hurt

Labelled imagery of US drone strike on Ghundi Kala, North Waziristan, Pakistan. IMAGES COPYRIGHT CREDIT: © AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

Mamana Bibi, 68, was tending her crops in Ghundi Kala village on the afternoon of October 24 last year when she was killed by two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone. Her three granddaughters saw the blast, the killing, the destruction, as they were in the field, 119 feet away.

However, a few minutes later, another Hellfire missile struck, hitting a vacant area, 9 feet away from where Mamana Bibi was killed. Kaleem, who had rushed to check on his now late grandmother after the first strike, was hit by shrapnel in the second. He broke his left leg and suffered a large, deep gash in his thigh.

Granddaughter of Mamana Bibi, was killed in a US drone strike on 24 October 2012 in the village of Ghundi Kala, North Waziristan, Pakistan. IMAGES COPYRIGHT CREDIT: © AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

AI terms these strikes “rescuer attacks”, as those who run to the aid of the victims of an initial drone strike are targeted in a rapid follow-on attack. Pakistani intelligence officials told Amnesty that a local Taliban fighter had used a satellite phone on a road close to where Mamana Bibi was killed about 10 minutes before the strike and then drove away. They were unaware of why Mamana Bibi’s was killed but they assumed that it was related to the Taliban fighter’s proximity to her.

However, witnesses and family members denied the presence of militants anywhere near Mamana Bibi at the time of the attack. In addition, AI’s investigation found no evidence of military or armed group installations, hideouts or fighters.

The family has not been able to recover from the loss. Mamana Bibi’s son told AI that his father is grief stricken and his children are living in constant fear. “My daughter [Asma] suddenly gets scared and tells me she is going to be killed. She is living in constant fear. My children are worried even to just gather outside.”

18 labourers ‘gone’, child injured

Picture taken by a Zowi Sidgi resident reportedly of missile debris from the drone strike on July 6, 2012 that killed 18 people and injured at least 22. IMAGES COPYRIGHT CREDIT: © AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

On July 6 last year, a group of labourers from Zowi Sidgi village had gathered at a tent. It was their “gathering place” after a long day of work. Missiles hit the tent soon after, killing eight labourers.

Some villagers ventured to search for survivors and sift through the devastation, narrates the report. However, more drones fired another series of missiles a few minutes later, targeting those who had come to the scene.

In the drone strikes that evening, at least 18 people were killed and 22 injured, including an eight-year-old girl named Shehrbano, who sustained shrapnel injuries to her leg.

Image of road leading into Zowi Sidgi village in North Waziristan Agency where 18 labourers were killed in a US drone strike on 6 July 6, 2012. IMAGES COPYRIGHT CREDIT: © AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

AI identified all those killed and injured in the Zowi Sidgi attack – all but Shehrbano were men of ‘military age’ , ie, 18-35, which seems to be the criterion for American targeting.  Contrary to official claims that those killed were “terrorists”, AI’s research indicates that the victims of these attacks were not involved in fighting and posed no threat to life.


Should civilian deaths in drone attacks be counted as war crimes?

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Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (33)

  • MAK
    Oct 22, 2013 - 10:46AM

    “Amnesty International report: Civilian deaths in drone attacks akin to war crimes”. Explain that to Nobel Peace prize jury who gave one to Obama last year.


  • Zubair
    Oct 22, 2013 - 10:52AM

    “United States has carried out unlawful killing in Pakistan through drone attacks, some of which could even amount to war crimes.” (ET)
    Might is right – the old law still holds for 21st century humans.
    “We cannot find any justification for these killings. There are genuine threats to the US and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances. But it is hard to believe that a group of labourers, or an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren, were endangering anyone at all,” said an AI Pakistan researcher.
    The oppressed communities in the world have no voice.


  • Ashkenazi
    Oct 22, 2013 - 10:55AM

    It took a decade for Amnesty to say it or Obama needs to be pressurized now?


  • Insafian
    Oct 22, 2013 - 11:24AM

    Stop the drone strikes. What if your own son or daughter got killed in such strikes, Then you will realize.Recommend

  • Naeem Ahmed Chachar
    Oct 22, 2013 - 11:35AM

    Open terrorism and they call it legal.


  • Fahad
    Oct 22, 2013 - 12:00PM

    Imran Khan was right. Drones kill our Pakistani families more than terrorists.Recommend

  • AliKuliKhan
    Oct 22, 2013 - 12:30PM

    Are the civilian deaths caused by Taliban akin to war crimes. Because when i walk the streets of Peshawar, i wonder “Will I Be Next?”.


  • J
    Oct 22, 2013 - 12:32PM

    and then they bash on IK…….


  • lkhan
    Oct 22, 2013 - 12:38PM

    In wars civilian population unfortunately suffers the consequences, as indicated in this well researched AI report. Drone attacks though at times cruel, cause less loss of civilian lives in the war on terrorism. I do not justify the killings of labourers or Mamani Bibi, all those who have lost innocent lives or been injured out of context should have been immediately compensated by the USA government as is the case in Afghanistan when innocent lives are effected, for one. Secondly, the drone attacks ought to be the responsibility of the armed forces of Pakistan, as it is their sovereign territory, and indeed their war. The USA government is breaking international laws and the Geneva Convention… therefore no justification whatsoever. No one should be allowed to act above the law.


  • suzo
    Oct 22, 2013 - 1:05PM

    there is little difference between US Army and taliban, if any at all. . Shame on you Mr. Obama, noble ‘peace’ prize laureate. .!


  • Gurion
    Oct 22, 2013 - 1:10PM

    Pakistanis didn’t seem to like Amnesty when it reported the state sponsored oppression in Baluchistan!Recommend

  • QB
    Oct 22, 2013 - 1:35PM

    Where are the PTI bashers now?


  • Ali
    Oct 22, 2013 - 2:46PM

    All the bashers went in to sleep mode. They will return when again ET will post a hot topic like for example “IK and TTP have similar demands, is this a coincidence !?!?!?!”


  • M. Emad
    Oct 22, 2013 - 4:00PM

    AI lost its creditibility when it support the 1971 war criminals of East Pakistan (Bangladesh).

    USA has no other option than drone attack because, America’s ‘war on terror’ partner Pakistan (agencies) is helping the jihadis in Pak-Af border for its so called stratigic purpose.


  • Waqar Hassan
    Oct 22, 2013 - 4:09PM

    Killing innocent women and children can only be called Terrorism and despite this Obama was given Noble Peace Prize. This proved that body who select the noble peace prize winner is biased and this year also the prize was not given to the deserving person i.e. Malala


  • Awam
    Oct 22, 2013 - 4:19PM

    Why peace contractors (so called UN) of the world are blind. what they can see is the chemical weapon and taliban. Just single question.. who possess the most deadliest weapon, who is supplier and producer. shame


  • Honest
    Oct 22, 2013 - 5:00PM

    Amnesty International is the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Made of Leftist Losers, perverts mostly sitting in the safety of secular, progressive democracies, they issue statements in support of terrorists all over the world especially in support of islamosupremacist terrorists.

    Do you think they can run AI from a country ruled by TTP?


  • Mc
    Oct 22, 2013 - 5:07PM

    All those of who are against drones, tell me one thing: what are all the innocent civilians doing in the company of terrorists. Would you all be with them?


  • Awais
    Oct 22, 2013 - 5:43PM

    So does that mean we allow killing of more civilians?


  • Imran Ahmed
    Oct 22, 2013 - 6:33PM

    Without verifiable hard evidence gathered by neutral observers with no axe to grind it is difficult to make a legal case.
    The Pakistan Government is totally guilty of failure to gather this objective evidence.
    Local sources and newspapers tend to exagerrate and hence lose credibility, they also intimidate and hinder neutral investigation which inevitably damages their own case.
    As the PM states it, our sovereignty is under attack – but what concrete steps has he taken to gather evidence to take the issue to an international court of justice?
    Amongst all this we must also remember that Islamist militants have targetted and killed more than 40,000 non combatant, civilian Pakistanis. Compare this to the number of militants and civilians murdered by U.S. drones, no factual numbers are available but guesstimates are that the number is far, far smaller.


  • Imran Ahmed
    Oct 22, 2013 - 6:48PM

    From what I can see PTI wishes to strengthen the TTP, let it hold political power and to ban drone attacks whether by U.S. or Pak forces. It wishes to reconcile with terrorists.
    This course could pave the way to a) Taliban forcibly governing millions of Pakistanis under the Taliban version of Sharia (as they did once in Swat), or b) no option but a full scale war between Pakistani Forces and Militants.
    I wonder how many more Mamani Bibis and their grand daughters will die if we follow Imran Khan’s vision.


  • A J Khan
    Oct 22, 2013 - 7:24PM

    Any news about 50000 innocent Pakistanis killed by Taliban corporations. Will they too get justice. Will Talibans be declared as war criminals


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Oct 22, 2013 - 7:27PM

    Let us not set aside AI’s assertion that Pakistani officials are also involved in it and they are as much responsible as the Americans are, remember what ex- prime minister Gilani said to the US ambassador to Pakistan, he should also be tried for war crime beside Zardari,Kiyani and others. Unfortunately no one will be tried at least in Pakistan, we always look the other way, we did in Bungla Desh.


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Oct 22, 2013 - 8:08PM

    Amnesty International also advocated that those innocent civilians killed should be compensated, guess what, how much compensation will be forthcoming from US if any, $1000- $2000 per life. Afghan and Pakistani lives are worth this amount but American and European lives are worth millions, take the case of accused Libyan security official who allegedly planted a bomb in Pan Am flight which was blown up in the sky over Lockerby Scotland. More than 350 innocent passengers were killed, compensation from Libya was more than 1.5 billion dollars. At the same time Iran Airliner was shot down by US navy ship( US says it was by mistake) in the international water near Iran’s border killing more than 300 innocent people on board, compensation big 0. It all amount to one big question , is might is right and the super power could commit any atrocities and get away with it. No wonder there is so much hate towards the Americans in the Muslim world and it will not subside untill some saner heads rule the US.


  • Solomon2
    Oct 22, 2013 - 8:26PM

    Under post-9/11 UN Security Council Resolution 1373, Pakistan has the binding sovereign obligation in international law to enforce its sovereignty and work to eliminate terrorists, terror-training camps, and terror financing in its territory. Failure to do so – as in North Wazirstan – nulls Pakistani sovereignty with regards to other nations attacking terrorists there; in this regard, N. Wazirstan is an open battlefields – a war zone.

    As it is a war zone under international law it doesn’t seem possible to classify drone attacks there as “extrajudicial executions”. As far as these being “war crimes” one would have to consider case-by-case whether attacks that resulted in civilian deaths were happened because the attacking nation meant to kill civilians deliberately or disproportionately to the target attacked.

    Scrutiny of lists of civilian casualties from drone attacks reveal several anomalies. In general, drones attacks result in one to five casualties or so, as the one or two missiles a drone carries have warheads of less than ten kilograms of explosive. A group of drones might kill more.

    However, when one sees listed eighty civilians killed in a single drone attack one has good cause to suspect that the drones are being blamed for attacks carried out by some other means. This is not a topic discussed by groups like Amnesty International. Such an attack might be a war crime but drones would not be to blame – nor would the United States.


  • B
    Oct 22, 2013 - 10:22PM

    Would you say the same if was India?


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Oct 22, 2013 - 10:37PM

    Hundreds of thousands were killed and maimed in Iraq, of course US is not responsible for it, the war was waged because Saddam Hussain had WMD and we all know what kind of WMD that turned out, every one from President down was talking about mushroom clouds. By the way North Korea has the WMD and no one is daring to attack them, I wonder why. You are very wrong, AI does have the right or even any other human rights organizations to question those who are killing innocent people around the world and that include the innocent people killed on 9/11, just because one is super power, it does not absolve them of their responsibility to the world community. Tomorrow many of the nations are going to have drones and they will also ignore the international law and do what ever they want. By the way my maternal family is from S.Waziristan and I dare you or the likes of you to go there and try to subdue those people, they are fiercely independent people and that is one of the reason that Pakistani government never had any writ in that area. Pakistani government has already found out the results of aligning themselves with so called war on terror. More than 40,000 people has been killed in Pakistan since the invasion of Afghanistan, to destabilize Pakistan will be a major head ache for the US or even India that you come from.


  • Zen
    Oct 23, 2013 - 12:50AM

    @naeem khan Manhattan,Ks:
    What has all this heat and hatred taken you. Cool it and enjoy.


  • numbersnumbers
    Oct 23, 2013 - 3:20AM

    WOW, according to you, drones have killed more Pakistanis than the 30,000 PLUS Pakistanis the TTP has purposely slaughtered over the last decade!
    You would think that someone would have noticed!!!!


  • numbersnumbers
    Oct 23, 2013 - 3:35AM

    @naeem khan Manhattan,Ks:
    WOW, you say “Iran airliner shot down….compensation (by US) big 0”!
    Too bad you didn’t bother to do a web search and find out that, in February 1996, the US paid $131.8 million to Iran as compensation for this incident!!!!


  • Pankaj
    Oct 23, 2013 - 10:38AM

    Pakistan has 50 more years to develop itself and overtake America. then it can capture Obama and prosecute him in its court like america did to Saddam.
    Pakistanies , wake up , make this a reality ! you have little time to loose before Obama and Bush die their natural deaths !


  • Imran Ahmed
    Oct 23, 2013 - 3:19PM
    “Reaffirming the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence as recognized by the Charter of the United Nations as reiterated in resolution 1368 (2001),

    Although drones may be legally employed for counter terrorism by the USA in aid of Pakistan it is doubtful that their use remains legal after Pakistan withdraws permission. However it is moot whether S. Waziristan currently falls under the full sovereignty of Pakistan, does it pay taxes to Pakistan? Is it governed by our civil administration? Does it follow our penal code? Our courts? Our school curriculum?
    Can an unarmed tax collector / baillif / police official carry out his/her official duties there?


  • Solomon2
    Oct 23, 2013 - 7:48PM

    @naeem khan Manhattan,Ks:

    “Hundreds of thousands were killed and maimed in Iraq, of course US is not responsible -”
    It’s worthwhile to debate where U.S. responsibility ends and Iraqi responsibility begins but assuming the U.S. is automatically and without exception responsible when one group of Iraqis decides to blow up another group is too far.

    Your only purpose in bringing up such a red herring comment is demonization: to claim that regardless of the truth or falsity in Amnesty International’s report and conclusions, it should be taken as an opportunity to castigate the U.S. anyway.

    Did you ever think that this is how the mindset, “the U.S. is evil, Israel is evil, the West is evil, etc.” got started in the first place?

    “You are very wrong, AI does have the right or even any other human rights organizations to question those who are killing innocent people around the world -”
    I never claimed AI didn’t have the right to question and criticize. But I think you are trying to deny my right to contest and disprove their charges.

    “…just because one is super power, it does not absolve them of their responsibility to the world community.”
    It isn’t the fact the U.S. is a superpower that makes its actions right while those of terrorists who prey on the innocent is wrong; it’s because the U.S. generally acts decently, responsibly, and legally towards others while the terrorists and those who support them don’t.

    “…my maternal family is from S.Waziristan and I dare you or the likes of you to go there and try to subdue those people -”
    Why would I want to “subdue” anyone? The days of the West’s exploitative imperialism are long gone. Two World Wars established the rule: no more empires, neither East nor West. Though you make a good case as to why drones are to be preferred to occupation and control by ground troops.

    “…they are fiercely independent people and that is one of the reason that Pakistani government never had any writ in that area.”
    If you want the Wazirstans to be independent states you need to knock on doors in Pakistan before appealing abroad. Though I do think that the SC disposing of UNSCR 1373 and recognizing the Wazirstans as independent states conquered from Pakistan has its advantages: when drones hit your relatives and bombs flatten your home because you or they committed terror attacks you would know you are responsible, not some distant address in Islamabad.


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