Perhaps understandably, the US is secretive about its drone programme. But over the last decade, thousands of unmanned drones have been deployed in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as part of America's covert war on terror. The US claims that these strikes allow them to eliminate the top tier of leadership of terrorist groups, and that civilian deaths are minimal. Campaigners argue that large numbers of innocent people are being killed, and that the programme is in violation of international law.
Two reports released today reiterate this view. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both said that the US must hold to account those responsible for civilian deaths and be more transparent about its use of drones. They called for an impartial investigation into the programme, and for the US to be open about civilian deaths. Nor is it only rights groups calling for a review of the programme: two recently published UN reports will be presented to the UN General Assembly on Friday. This brings the total of critical reports on drones up to four, within a very short time period. All four demand that the US provide a full legal rationale for targeted killings.
Today's reports are slightly different in their focus. HRW's examined six missile attacks in Yemen – one from 2009, and the rest between 2012 and 2013. The strikes killed 82 people, at least 57 of whom were civilians. According to HRW, none of the attacks met America's own policy guidelines for targeted killings. One of the pledges outlined in Barack Obama's speech on drones earlier this year was to kill suspects only when it is impossible to capture them. But on 17 April this year, an al-Qaeda leader was blown up in Dhamar Province in central Yemen, which HRW says contravened this rule. The group suggests that the strikes also violated international laws around armed conflict and human rights. "Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war," the report said. "The others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths."
Amnesty' report reaches similar conclusions in its look at Pakistan's North Waziristan region. It reviews 45 known drone strikes in the region between January 2012 and August this year, finding that nine of the strikes could amount to war crimes or extrajudicial killings. Some of these were unjustified target killings, and some were cases of follow-up strikes on residents who had gone to the scene after an initial strike. It said that the attacks caused locals to live in fear, and that they set "a dangerous precedent that other states may seek to exploit to avoid responsibility for their own unlawful killings".
The authors of both reports acknowledge that in many cases, it is difficult to say with certainty whether men of military age were members of terrorist groups. Relatives will often deny links to extremist groups, which American intelligence insists is not reliable testimony. Circumventing this, Amnesty highlighted the killing of a grandmother, and of a group of labourers. Over and above this, rights groups maintain that membership of an extremist organisation doesn't make someone a legitimate target for extrajudicial killing.
Most newspapers have led on the attention-grabbing top line of Amnesty's report – that the US may be guilty of war crimes. Yet overall, the reports take a more nuanced line. The main call is for greater transparency: despite a promise to be more open about drones, the US is still releasing next to no information about who it is killing and why, making it very difficult to evaluate the legality of the strikes. Of course, cynics might say that preventing a definitive evaluation of the legality is a motivating factor for withholding information.
Opinion about drones is sharply divided in the affected countries. Some argue that they are a necessary evil, since terrorists kill far more civilians than the US; others argue that they are a violation of sovereignty that will radicalise vast swathes of the population. Moreover, the legal status of drones is incredibly complicated. One justification is that the places where they are used – Yemen, Pakistan's tribal area, Somalia – amount to war zones. Amnesty's report says that some of the strikes in Pakistan may be covered by this, but criticised the notion of a "global war doctrine" that allows the US to attack al-Qaeda anywhere in the world.
White House officials declined to respond in detail to the allegations, merely pointing to Obama's speech in May. The first major public address on the secretive programme, this speech outlined tighter standards for targeted strikes. One of these was "a near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured". Clearly, this commitment is not being met. But as the US remains committed to its drone programme, it is unlikely that greater transparency or stricter rules will be a reality any time soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.