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“How Do You Justify Killing a Grandmother?” Amnesty Says U.S. Drone Strikes May Be War Crimes

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Amnesty International has released a major new report on how U.S. drone strikes kill civilians in Pakistan, where it says some deaths may amount to war crimes. The group reviewed 45 drone strikes that have occurred in North Waziristan since January 2012. It found at least 19 civilians were killed in just two of those strikes, despite claims by the Obama administration it is accurately targeting militants. In a separate report, Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that have killed civilians. We are joined by Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International and author of the report, “'Will I be Next?' U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” Qadri asks: “How do they justify killing a grandmother if these weapons are so precise, if their standards and their policies for using them are very rigorous?” He also clarifies, “It’s not enough that a person is a militant to say that it’s OK to kill them. They have to be taking active part in hostilities to be lawfully targeted, and some other requirements as well.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Obama is scheduled to meet his Pakistani counterpart later today amidst rising tension around U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The meeting between Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comes as Amnesty International has released a major new report on how U.S. drone strikes kill civilians in Pakistan, where it says some drone killings may amount to war crimes. The group reviewed 45 drone strikes that have occurred in North Warizistan since January 2012. It found at least 19 civilians were killed in just two of those strikes, despite claims by the Obama administration it is accurately targeting militants.

In a separate report, Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that have killed civilians.

On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney defended the legality of the U.S. drone program.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: To the extent these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.

AMY GOODMAN: On the eve of his meeting with President Obama, Prime Minister Sharif said the drone strikes violate international law and Pakistan’s, quote, “territorial integrity.”

PRIME MINISTER NAWAZ SHARIF: There is, however, the matter of drone strikes, which have deeply disturbed and agitated our people. In my first statement to the Parliament, I had reiterated our strong commitment to ensuring an end to the drone attacks. More recently, our political parties in a national conference had declared that the use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country. This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship, as well. I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking Tuesday in Washington. While Sharif has criticized the U.S. drone strikes, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted earlier this year his government secretly signed off on U.S. drone strikes.

In its report, Amnesty documented the case of a 68-year-old grandmother, Mamana Bibi, who was killed in a strike that appeared to be aimed directly at her. She was picking okra while surrounded by her grandchildren when she was blasted to pieces. Her son and granddaughter described the attack.

RAFIQ UR-REHMAN: [translated] The children were also with her. She was hit in the first attack, and her body parts were lying scattered.

NABEELA: [translated] First it whistled. Then I heard a “dhummm.” The first hit us, and the second, my cousin. There was an explosion. We were scared, and I ran home. It was dark in front of our house. They brought me to the doctor in the village who gave me first aid. I was not scared before, but now, when the drone is flying, I am scared of it.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Amnesty International’s report on drone strikes in Pakistan.

Well, to find out more, we go to Washington, D.C., to talk with Mustafa Qadri, the author of the Amnesty International report, “'Will I be Next?' US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” He is Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You talk about these drone strikes in Pakistan as possible war crimes that the U.S. is engaged in. Lay out your case, Mustafa.

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yes, so we’re not saying that the entire program constitutes war crimes. What we’re saying is that particularly rescuer attacks may constitute war crimes. We’re talking here, for example, some laborers in a very impoverished village near the Afghanistan border, they get targeted, eight die instantly in a tent; those who come to rescue or to look for survivors are themselves targeted. In great detail, eyewitnesses, victims who survive tell us about, you know, the terror, the panic, as drones hovered overhead. There are other cases, as well, in the report where we talk about people who have been targeted for coming to be—to rescue people also killed. Those cases may constitute war crimes.

Now, that’s a very big claim. There’s a very high threshold for proving that. With the secrecy surrounding the program, the remoteness of this area, we can only get the truth once the U.S., as a start, comes clean and explains what is the justification for these killings.

But, you know, I should be really clear: We’re not just talking about these cases of war crimes; we’re talking about, as you mentioned before, you know, Mamana Bibi, a grandmother, killed in front of her grandchildren. You know, the U.S. has to explain these kind of killings. We think they’re unlawful, too. You know, how does it explain making the U.S. safer by killing these sorts of people?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just explain more about what happened to this grandmother?

MUSTAFA QADRI: So, basically, it’s in the middle of the afternoon, quite a clear day in the sky. It’s about 2:45. She’s in the family fields in North Waziristan, a village near one of the main cities. She’s picking okra. The next day is Eid al-Adha, so the holiest day in the year for Muslims. Her kids are doing their work in the field, as well. They noticed drones overhead. They were sort of used to that, because drones are ubiquitous in the skies over there. And then, literally, quite suddenly, she’s attacked. There’s a—she seems to be targeted deliberately. We can’t tell, obviously, without more information. But a missile hits her directly, and she dies instantly.

Her kids, some of them, are injured in that initial strike from shrapnel. Their house is damaged from the reverberation of the strike. As some of them venture to see what has happened to their grandmother, a few minutes later another strike happens about nine feet away from where the grandmother was killed, and that injures more of her grandchildren. After that, there’s incredible panic, you know, as we saw in the video clip. And up ’til this—today, the family has not received even an acknowledgment from the U.S. authorities that she was killed by a drone.

You know, I should be very clear here that we researched this case, you know, very thoroughly. We even actually analyzed missile fragments from experts who said that this appears to be a Hellfire missile. You know, we fact-checked everything. You can see it in the report. We really just have a very simple message to the U.S.: How do you justify killing a grandmother? How does that make anyone safer?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mustafa Qadri, could you talk about what people in Waziristan told you? The report suggests that people there expressed equal fear of the Taliban and of the U.S.?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, this is a really important point to make. We’re not saying that drones should stop. We’re not saying drones as a weapon are unlawful. What we’re saying is this program the U.S. has, the U.S. has not provided a satisfactory legal basis, and these cases may be unlawful.

What we’re also saying is that people living there face the threats from the Taliban, al-Qaeda. The Pakistani military often threatens and intimates people. When the Pakistan army gets attacked by the Taliban itself in that area, they will unleash indiscriminate bombings by mortar shells or helicopters. So people already there live a really harrowing life. It’s a very undeveloped area. The indicators are very low in terms of literacy, maternal mortality, women’s rights. For women, it’s a very difficult environment to live. Girls’ access to education is very low. So, the drones really are adding insult to the already many injuries that people face living there. What we’re saying is that this has to be a key part of that step towards bringing law and order and protecting the rights of people living there.

AMY GOODMAN: In the case of Mamana Bibi, the grandmother, they may not have—the U.S.—acknowledged to the family, but what about to Amnesty International?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, so, the—

AMY GOODMAN: When you gathered all of this evidence?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, no, it’s a good point. I mean, so, the only kind of acknowledgment we received was a letter from the CIA saying, you know, speak to the White House and look at the—you know, the policy guidelines released when President Obama made his speech in May this year about counterterrorism and the drone policy. So, in short, we have not received any information, really, from the U.S. authorities about this case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to play another clip from the Amnesty report. This man describes what happened on July 6, 2012, in a village in North Waziristan when 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of drone strikes. His identity has been concealed for his safety.

NORTH WAZIRISTAN VILLAGER: [translated] Would it not hurt you if they kill your brother for no reason? The drone struck in our area. It hit the chromite extractors who were gathered in a tent slaughtering a sheep for feast. All of them were killed. When the villagers arrived to rescue them, missiles were fired again. They were also killed. What other could it have been? Some of the corpses had been badly burned and were beyond recognition. We could only identify them because we knew who had come there to work and we knew their names and the names of their tribes. They were laborers extracting chromite in the mountains.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was another clip from the Amnesty report. Mustafa Qadri, could you talk about the significance of these so-called double strikes or second strikes?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, I mean, so there is a very significant legal ramification for this, but on the human side we’re talking about targeting people who have come to assist, you know, victims of a strike. Now, no matter who those people might be, the human instinct to try to help someone is—you know, everyone has that. It’s a universal thing. So the idea that those who are coming to assist injured people, it’s really quite shocking. You know, we’ve documented cases where militants have been killed. We document a case where Abu Yahya al-Libi, the at the time number two of al-Qaeda, was killed. And in that episode, rescuers, people who had nothing, as far as we can tell, to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or at the very least did not pose an imminent threat, an immediate threat, to the U.S. or its allies, were killed in a rescue attack.

When you look at people living there, already facing so many threats, curfew, living a very difficult life, the idea that in the skies, the skies are no longer safe, and then when these strikes happen—you know, it could be very close to you, could be your neighbors, could be your loved ones involved—obviously you want to help them, and now people are so scared even to do that, it’s really quite shocking.

In terms of the law, that—we see that as unlawful. We can’t see a justification for that. We really call on the U.S., as we saw with Jay Carney claiming this is a legal program—well, fine, show us the legal justification for it and ensure those justifications and the facts are given to a genuinely independent, impartial investigator. That’s the key thing. We are saying now to the U.S. government: Come clean, show us what is your evidence in law and fact for justifying rescuer attacks and the other unlawful killings we’ve documented in the report.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Jay Carney, the White House spokesperson, who was asked a question about the Amnesty report and reiterated the precision of U.S. drone strikes.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life. U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective. And the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorist—terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute. We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with U.S. values and U.S. policy. Of particular note, before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured. And that is the highest standard we can set.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the White House spokesperson, Jay Carney. Mustafa Qadri, your response?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, look, I mean, if that is the case, how do they justify killing a grandmother? If these weapons are so precise, if their standards and their policies for using them are very rigorous and they use a high standard, as he has mentioned, you know, explain that to the family of Mamana Bibi. How and why was she killed? Was this a mistake? Was she mistaken for a militant? Was she deliberately targeted? This clearly shows that it’s not correct. And, you know, the actual legal policy justifications given to us thus far have not been sufficient.

And let’s be very clear about this. You know, most of the information we have received, all of us collectively, is through leaks to the media. It’s through anonymous official sources talking to the media. It’s not been directly from the government. At the moment, they’re basically telling us, “Look, trust us. You know, we know what we’re doing. We are very reliable, professional people.” And, you know, the reality is, because these killings are happening in lawless areas like Pakistan’s tribal areas, like remote Yemen or Somalia, the U.S. knows it, you know, can get away with murder, because it’s very hard for people to verify claims. Now, how long will this administration merely just say, “Look, we do things lawfully”? We need to see the facts. We need to at least, at the very minimum, have an explanation for how you can justify killing a grandmother.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mustafa Qadri, you’ve also said that only some of the strikes could constitute war crimes. How is it that U.S. drone strikes could be brought under international law? In other words, how could drone strikes in a sovereign country be made legal?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, so there’s two rough ways this could happen. The law is quite technical. But basically, it could be because of a spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan, so that, for example, if you have a military commander of the Afghan Taliban, he’s in hot pursuit from Afghanistan, he slips into the border into North Waziristan, in the right conditions—there’s a whole range of requirements—that might be lawful. Alternatively, Pakistan is itself fighting a non-international armed conflict in its own borders against the local insurgency; the U.S. has killed members of that insurgency, very senior members of that. Now, that might be lawful. But again, there are very strict requirements that have to be satisfied. One of the requirements is not that a person who is a militant is lawfully—can be lawfully killed. It’s not enough that a person is militant to say that it’s OK to kill them. They have to be taking active part in hostilities to be lawfully targeted. There’s some other requirements, as well.

The point is that, you know, we’re not talking about the whole program is impossible for it to be lawful. There is the capacity with the U.S. You know, the—administration officials have assured us there’s a whole range of infrastructure experts, people involved in this program. So, really, the U.S.—it’s obligation on them to make sure the program abides by international law.

I think the other thing that’s really key—and again, Jay Carney sort of hit on this, as well—is this idea of trying to arrest or incapacitate people wherever possible. Well, the U.S. has to work with its Pakistani counterparts to improve that capacity. It has to ensure that Pakistan does its job in actually trying to bring these perpetrators to justice before a court in a fair trial. You know, we’ve documented that, you know, the Pakistani authorities have a very poor record of bringing these perpetrators to justice in fair trials. The legal setup in these tribal areas is incredibly poor. Pakistan still applies these anachronistic laws from the British era, which allows it to collectively punish tribes that are considered, you know, pro-Taliban. That has to change. Now, these are big problems, but there are solutions. And we really say, again, to the U.S. that it needs to make sure its drones are lawful, rather than retrospectively, after doing a strike, saying, firstly, “We’ll check to see if any civilians are killed,” and, secondarily, when information comes out, just assuring us, “Look, don’t worry, it’s all legal; everything is fine. You can all go home now.”

AMY GOODMAN: Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, recently criticized U.S. drone strikes during a meeting with President Obama. The Obamas—President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and, as well, their daughter Malia—invited Malala to the White House earlier this month in order to honor her work on behalf of girls’ education. But the White House statement did not mention another topic raised at the meeting. In her own statement, Malala wrote, quote, “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” Your response to that, Mustafa Qadri?

MUSTAFA QADRI: Yeah, look, I mean, I largely reiterate what Malala has said, that, you know—and it’s really disappointing that President Obama’s official statement did not mention what she said, because that’s a really important point. But I can tell you also, from the Pakistan side, that another key part of trying to promote education is trying to basically prevent the Taliban from targeting girls like Malala. And that is a key part of it.

You know, one of the problems of the drone debate up 'til now is that because it's been so polarized and because the issues are so complicated, there’s been a tendency to sort of reduce things down to either drones are good or bad. What we’re saying is that, you know, have to look at the local context. The current secrecy and the potential unlawfulness of the U.S. program, firstly, incenses Pakistanis, is used as a political football amongst those hard-liners in Pakistan who want to hide the abuses by the Taliban and other groups. And what Pakistan really needs to do is to move on. It needs to address the fact that even within Pakistan there’s a huge problem with intolerance. There’s a huge problem of a lack of quality education for most people. I mean, 2 percent, or less than that, of the GDP is spent on education. Women’s access to education, you know, it’s not universally bad, but it’s very bad in the northwest, where Malala is from, where the Taliban are based. You know, these issues need to be addressed.

The fact that the U.S. carries out drones so secretively, it—you know, yes, it sparks anti-American sentiments, but also it creates all sorts of ideas about, you know, secret plots and this and that. What has to happen is more honesty in the discussion about, firstly, what is the problems in that region and the relation between the U.S. and Pakistan. When the U.S. government basically is secretive in the way that the Taliban is secretive or that al-Qaeda is secretive, when its drones are used in a way that causes fear in the hearts of people the way Taliban and al-Qaeda causes fear in people’s hearts, that shows you what a big, serious problem we’re dealing with.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for much for being with us, Mustafa Qadri, author of the Amnesty International report. We will link to that report called “'Will I be Next?' US Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” Mustafa Qadri is the Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International. On Friday, we’ll be joined by Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. The U.N. has also put out a report on drones, as has Human Rights Watch. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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