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Legality of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan increasingly under scrutiny

Washington, Fri, 20 Apr 2012 ANI

Washington, April 19 (Xinhua-ANI): In the vast swath of no-man's- land on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, U.S. drones have for years reigned down death and destruction on suspected terrorists, as well as innocent civilians.

For the U.S. military, drones have become an indispensable tool in fighting terrorism, as they can hover high in the air while allowing the operators to fly the aircraft via remote control, often from the safety of a base. But the legality of such strikes are increasingly questioned in the United States.


The Pentagon has said that drone strikes are effective in killing terrorists, and they have killed notorious figures such as the U.S.-born al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki.

But some civil liberties and human rights advocates are arguing that such drone strikes may not be legal under international law.

Gabor Rona, international legal director at Human Rights First, said just being a terrorist is not reason enough to target an individual. According to international law, a target must be planning or carrying out an action that would harm the United States.

"You can be a terrorist, you can be a militant, but that does not make you targetable," Rona said.

Other organizations have been pushing the U.S. government to provide more information on past drone strikes in a bid to determine their legality. In February, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court to force the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to release intelligence records related to the killing of three U.S. citizens in drone attacks last year in Yemen, who were alleged to be members of al-Qaeda.

The suit came amid mounting opposition to the U.S. drones program from both inside and outside the country, as last month Pakistani lawmakers recommended that the U.S. halt the strikes. Pakistan has condemned U.S. drone raids in its territory as a violation of its sovereignty.

Rona said that if the U.S. is going to conduct such strikes-which are often launched by the spy agency Central Intelligence Agency and not regular military personnel-then U.S. citizens have a right to know what criteria the government is using.

"So far all we have are statements that the government has concluded that its program is 'lawful' without spelling out any legal details," he said.

Obama in January defended the use of drones in Pakistan, saying unmanned aircraft target "people who are on a list of active terrorists."


The U.S. government has come under fire for a number of cases in which drone strikes killed innocent people by mistake.

In the absence of a legal framework to dictate who drones can and cannot attack, as well as the administration's reluctance to even acknowledge its drone program-Obama rarely discusses it publicly-rights groups fret that the killing of innocents could continue.

The United States keeps figures on drone strikes and casualties classified, although the New America Foundation think tank in Washington estimates that between 293 and 471 civilians were killed in drone attacks up to 2011.

The United States refutes the number, tagging total civilian fatalities at around 50. Others say the issue is so charged that no statistic is reliable.

According to PBS Frontline, the military has increased its number of drones since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 from 60 to more than 6,000, and Obama's use of the technology is unprecedented.

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said drone strikes in Pakistan do more harm than good, boosting anti-U.S. sentiment and widening the pool of recruits for militants like al-Qaeda.

"The drone has become the flagship of what is wrong with this relationship," Yusuf said. (Xinhua-ANI)

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