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Against the law

Esther Felden / sbOctober 22, 2013

According to an Amnesty International report, the US drone program in Pakistan partially breaches international law. Some of the drone attacks can even be classified as war crimes, says Amnesty expert Verena Harpe.

Verena Harpe, Asia expert at Amnesty International Deutschland Copyright: AI
Image: AI

DW: For this report, you have looked at several US drone attacks which took place in North Waziristan between the beginning of 2012 and August of this year. Which conclusions have you come to?

Verena Harpe: We have found that the US with its drone program in Pakistan continues to breach international law; some of the attacks can even be classified as war crimes. We looked very closely at 45 separate cases, conducting detailed research into them. We led comprehensive interviews; we had access to the region, which is very difficult and which for some of the people talking to us posed a danger to their safety. So we had to change names in some cases.

But unfortunately, we came to the conclusion that in this isolated region of the world, international law is disregarded time and again and that at a high cost to the people who live there. They are terrorized by the drones, harassed by the Pakistani military and threatened by armed groups. So they are stuck in the middle.

You said you have spoken to these people yourself. Could you name a few examples for us?

There is one case, for example, which took place last October. A 68-year-old grandmother was working in the fields with her grandchildren when she saw the drones coming. She had to work nonetheless; the drones are there all the time and people still have to carry on with their daily lives. But then one of the drones struck and it killed the grandmother.

And there was another strike which injured the children - some of them critically. They were kids aged between 7 and 15 years. Despite the most intensive research, we could not find any explanation for the targeted killing of this woman. Targeted killings are only allowed under very special circumstances anyway - there must be imminent danger and in this case, there was absolutely no trace of imminent danger posed by this grandmother working on the fields.

There was a similar case last year involving 18 workers who met after a long work day to have dinner together. They were bombed and most of them were killed, including a 14-year-old boy. During our research, we found those in the group had been categorized as militant fighters. But our investigation could not come to the same conclusion. Instead, we found that the group of men were ordinary villagers who posed no danger whatsoever.

Do you have figures for how many civilians are killed in this kind of attacks?

No, there are no exact figures. But you bring up a good point. The Pakistani government speaks of 400 to 600 casualties, other NGOs and journalist networks speak of much higher casualty figures - up to 1,000. But the US has remained silent about it. And that is exactly the problem: when the side which is carrying out such attacks has no concrete figures, it is impossible to conduct exact research.

In an article published by the "Economist" magazine, several people were quoted as having a positive view towards the drone attacks. Have you found any evidence to support that?

We talked to many different people. We conducted over 60 interviews with survivors, witnesses and also with armed groups and so forth, and it became clear that many people fear the Taliban and other armed groups in the region.

It is true that there are a few people who say that if drone attacks help weaken these groups, then it is a good thing. But a number of people also told us that the attacks cause more harm than good and that the civilian population lives in constant fear because the drones fly around in the sky day and night and it is not a seldom occurrence that civilians are hit.

In your report, Germany is also blamed. What for, exactly?

We say that the German government has contributed to these attacks by, for example, passing on mobile telephone information and secret service information, which has led to the US being able to use this information for whatever purposes. We also know that these drone attacks sometimes breach international law and we don't see that the German government can fully exclude that the data it passed on was definitely not used for targeted killings.

How do you know data was passed on?

Among our sources are former Pakistani secret service agents, who in different interviews and independent of each other, repeatedly said that not only Germany, but also other European states worked together with the US on its drone program and that is in accord with the fact that Germany passes on information to the US. the Germans justify this, normally, by saying the information passed on is used in a way that coheres to international law and that it is not used to conduct targeted killings, but instead to simply locate people. But the German government trusts that the US will use the information appropriately.

What do you demand from the German government, especially with regards to its role as a US ally?

For one, Germany must make transparent which role it plays. And it must also demand that the US respects and adheres to international law so it does not end up supporting targeted killings and the drone program.

Verena Harpe is an Asia expert at Amnesty International Germany.

Interview conducted by Esther Felden