Amnesty Calls on U.S. to Justify Civilian Deaths From Drone Hits

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are launched sometimes without legal justification and may amount to war crimes, according to a report released on the eve of President Barack Obama’s meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Civilians are believed to have been indiscriminately killed in several of the 45 known drone strikes in Pakistan’s North Waziristan from January 2012 to August 2013, Amnesty International said a report released today. The group cited field research and 60 interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses and officials.

The Obama administration should fully disclose the facts and legal basis for each drone strike carried out in the program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency and investigate any “potentially unlawfully killings,” the London-based human rights group said. The secrecy surrounding the drone campaign often prevents compensation for civilians and their families who are killed an injured, it said.

While saying that firm conclusions can’t be reached based on the U.S. refusal to “provide even basic information on particular strikes,” Amnesty International said in the report that it “is seriously concerned” that strikes “have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”

Sharif will tomorrow make his first official visit to the White House since taking office four months ago. The U.S. and Pakistan are exploring how to mend ties since their falling out over the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Sharif, who has condemned the drone strikes, will discuss with Obama possible U.S. assistance to revive an economy hurt by power blackouts and a Taliban insurgency.

Obama’s Speech

Asked about the Amnesty report, White House spokesman Jay Carney said today that “we would strongly disagree” that the U.S. has acted outside of international law.

Carney cited a May speech by Obama in which the president said the U.S. has a process to ensure targets are selected carefully to avoid civilian casualties.

“He made clear that it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties,” which is a consequence of any warfare, Carney said. The U.S. operations are “precise, lawful and effective,” he said.

An independent expert’s report for the United Nations General Assembly, released last week, said at least 400 civilians were killed in about 330 drone strikes carried out in Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2004. That was an “underestimate,” according to the report.

‘Almost Insurmountable’

The “technically classified” status of the CIA drone program in Pakistan is becoming “increasingly harder to justify” under national security concerns, when its operations have been publicly acknowledged by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, said Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on protection of human rights in counter-terrorism, in the report released Oct. 18.

“The involvement of the CIA in lethal counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and Yemen has created an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency,” said Emmerson, who will brief the UN on his findings on Oct. 25 in New York.

An investigation of six drone strikes in Yemen “strongly suggests” that U.S. drones targeted those who didn’t pose an imminent threat or weren’t directly involved in terrorist operations, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a separate report it released today in partnership with Amnesty.

“The U.S. may be using an overly elastic definition of a fighter who may be lawfully attacked during an armed conflict,” according to the report.

Security for Investments

Sharif strongly opposed the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas during his election campaign and promised to halt the program. Speaking before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, the former businessman said his government is focused on providing a secure environment for investment.

Pakistan is the world’s sixth most-populous nation, with about 193 million people. Sharif is moving to overhaul the economy by selling shares in state-run companies and improving infrastructure. The goal is to expand the economy by more than 6 percent in the 2016 fiscal year, up from an estimated 3.6 percent in the year ended June 30.

The U.S. will provide aid to support “various programs” in Pakistan, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, said Oct. 19 in an e-mailed statement.

The decision is part of “long process of restarting security assistance,” which helps Pakistan’s military counter terrorism and violence in its western regions near the Afghanistan border, Harf said.

About $1.6 billion will be given in military and economic aid, reviving what was suspended in 2011, following the breakdown in ties over the Bin Laden raid and U.S. air strikes against Pakistani soldiers, according to the Associated Press.

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