Amnesty International’s recent publication, Will I be Next? US Drone Strikes in Pakistan has spurred a global debate on the use of drone strikes in Pakistan. The report invited some critical responses on issues of accuracy and objectivity but overall it has informed the ongoing debates. In Pakistan, it has been used by different lobbies to advocate their stance through selective interpretation. Raza Rumi spoke to Amnesty’s Pakistan Researcher Mustafa Qadri on some of these issues and concerns.
What are the most critical findings of Amnesty’s recent report?
In some of the cases we have documented extensively, the US appears to have committed unlawful killings in breach of international law. Some of these killings, particularly the targeting of so-called rescuers, may even constitute war crimes or extra-judicial executions. This includes the killing of 18 laborers in the impoverished village of Zowi Sidgi around Magreb time on 6 July 2012. In another case, a drone strike killed 67 year old grandmother Manana Bibi in front of her grandchildren. Those responsible for these killings must be brought to justice. The US must come clean and acknowledge this secretive program, fully disclose the number of documented deaths, how many they view as non-combatants, how they arrived at these figures, how they assess that a person is a combatant and therefore will be targeted, and fully disclose the legal basis for the program, including the US Department of Justice Legal Memo that is purportedly the cornerstone of its legality. I believe this is only possible if the program and the cases we and others have documented are investigated by a genuinely independent and impartial body. It should not be left to the Obama Administration and the US Congress and Senate committees, which are supposed to provide oversight of the targeted killing programs, because they have failed to adequately do this.
What were the difficulties in gathering data? How did you secure access to the victims and the area? Did Pakistan state cooperate or hinder the efforts?
Securing data is extremely difficult in FATA because of the secretive US program, the lawless and remote nature of the area, and the active control and suppression of accurate testimony by local actors including the Taliban, Al Qaeda linked groups and Pakistani security authorities. This issue is so politicised that it is difficult to take claims on face value. That’s why our research is based on extensive, discreet research from multiple eyewitnesses interviewed on three separate occasions by separate investigators who have worked with us in the past not just on drones, but abuses by the Taliban and others, abuses against women and so on. We corroborated eyewitness testimony against satellite imagery, photographs, video, and analysis of missile fragments by experts.
What has been the reaction globally given that this is such a contested issue?
There has been an amazing reaction to the report from every corner of the globe. Most encouraging, the response from the US media and public has been overwhelmingly positive, a reflection of the quality of our research and the compelling, tragic cases of civilian killings documented in the report. People in the US and around the world are asking, how does killing a 67 year old grandmother make any of us safer? People are extremely concerned that this technology is being used to facilitate a secretive and unaccountable killing program that, over time, could well expand beyond not just the tribal areas or other far away places but their own cities and neighbourhoods.
The report also talks about the territory under the control of militants in Pakistan? What is amnesty’s view on that? And what is the key advice to Pakistan government?
This is the third report by Amnesty International in the last three years to document abuses perpetrated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as the Pakistani military (see The hands of cruelty http://tinyurl.com/me8ouuk and As if hell fell on me http://tinyurl.com/2u69brf). These groups are responsible for the deaths of 10,000s of people in Pakistan, far more than the Pakistani military or police or US drones. These include suicide bombings in the most sacred of places such as mosques and churches that they openly admit to carrying out. The Pakistan state has an extremely poor record in bringing these perpetrators to justice in fair trials. Even where they are arrested many have escaped or continue to coordinate their activities from behind bars. Our message to the Pakistani authorities is quite simple. There is no shortcut to ending militancy, and even the worst militants have human rights. Lethal force must only be used when absolutely necessary as consistent with international standards. The authorities must do everything to bring militants to justice in fair trials, sending a signal the state is civilised, has a zero-tolerance policy towards abuses, and diminishing the stature of these supposedly mysterious figures with the superhuman ability to defy Pakistan and US forces.
In Pakistan, a selective reading of the report has been made that sort of distorts the key messages of your campaign. How would Amnesty address this issue?
We are very disappointed by attempts to selectively quote our drones report but this is a familiar pattern. For example, the United States routinely quotes Amnesty International reports on other countries but refutes our claims of unlawful killings by US drones. As to selective readings in Pakistan, in the end it is our own country and fellow people who suffer the most. Our report documents the failure of Pakistani authorities to provide even basic assistance to victims of drone strikes and other violence in the tribal areas. These are systemic failings and those who are appalled by deaths due to US drones should make the effort to read this and our previous reports in their entirety. Anything less is a disservice to the long suffering people of the tribal areas. And, ultimately, it is a disservice to Pakistan because our country cannot move forward until it starts dealing with the very serious failings in rule of law that are also a problem in Multan and Karachi, not just Waziristan. Criticism of the US drone program should not be used to deflect attention from the fires burning closer to home.
Which are the recommendations that the US authorities need to act upon immediately?
The US authorities must allow genuinely independent and impartial investigations of the CIA and other authorities who may be responsible for the killings documented in our report. They must fully disclose the legal memo and policy guidelines that the Obama Administration claims underpin the drone program. Along with disclosing figures for all casualties both civilians and combatants from all drone strikes, the US authorities must ensure compensation and other remedies to victims of unlawful drone strikes, such as the case of grandmother Mamana Bibi, killed by a drone in front of her own grandchildren.
Is there a plan to do a follow up report? Would advocacy be difficult?
Since the release of the report we have been engaged in a great deal of advocacy and public outreach in the US, Pakistan and globally about drones strikes and other human rights problems in the area. But our work is not just on drone strikes or the tribal areas. We have a number of exciting and important human rights projects lined up for 2014 relating to freedom of expression, women’s rights and much else. Ultimately, though, our role is only a small part of the picture. It is up to ordinary people, people like the thoughtful readership of The Friday Times, to demand that human rights are always respected at all times. A measure of a just society is how it treats its most vulnerable and most hated individuals.
Raza Rumi is Consulting Editor, TFT