Civilians dying in targeted drone strikes

The UN has launched an investigation into civilian deaths caused by covert US drone operations following the latest drone strikes in Yemen.

Two children were reported dead after a drone mistakenly struck a house in its search for militants on Wednesday. Three others in the house were injured.

Drones are remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles that the US has been using since 9/11 for surveillance and targeted killings in the Middle East. Pakistan is hit with 85% of targeted strikes outside battlefields, followed by Yemen and Somalia. Though the strikes are touted as “surgical” by the Obama administration, an investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism placed the civilian death toll far above the single-digit government figures.

Civilian Drone Deaths in Pakistan since 2004
This graph tracks conservative civilian drone death counts in Pakistan since 2004. (credit: TBIJ)

Between Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the tally of recorded civilian deaths is 560 at least, 1125 at most.

The conservative estimate of child deaths is 204.

Several factors complicate tracking civilian drone deaths:

  • the CIA classifies all military-aged men in a strike zone as militants or combatants
  • approval of signature strikes has allowed strikes based on “patterns of behaviour rather than the known presence of a terrorist operative”
  • questionable legality of strikes under International Human Rights Law
  • statistics don’t include civilian deaths in Afghanistan (a “battleground”), which is currently being hit with an average of 33 drone strikes per month
  • lack of transparency regarding covert drone operations

Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, said in a conference call with the Council on Foreign Relations this week, “The reason we have covert action is so we can deny it.”

As Pakistan’s officials publicly condemn US drone operations, Blair said, “The legislature can pass laws that say that we can’t do it, and meanwhile [Pakistan’s] government actually gives us permission to use their airspace.”

He continued that Pakistan gets “the best of all worlds; they get attacks against militants who are a threat to them, and they get to blame us for it.”

Regardless of covert government interactions, the joint Stanford/NYU Living Under Drones Report concluded the US strike practices can set a dangerous global precedent as countries develop their own drone technologies. Particularly concerning is the question of whether the drones are operating within the rule of law, and whether other countries would follow in the same vein.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listed this criteria for a lethal (and lawful) drone strike:

  • target has to be a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or an associated force
  • target must be planning to attack the US and is in a country where US drones are allowed to strike
  • target must be impossible to capture at the time the striking decision is made

Of the total drone-strike casualties, the number of high-level targets stands at a dismal 2%.

While Obama’s promises on the campaign trail in 2008 included judicial oversight in America’s counter terrorism efforts, he now controls a military with over 7000 unmanned aerial vehicles and a steadily-rising, barely-questioned civilian death toll.

The UN Investigation may be a push toward increasing transparency when it comes to the ongoing drone operations.

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