Human Rights Group Investigates Drone Strikes In Pakistan

Amnesty International released a new report on Tuesday on U.S. drone strikes along Pakistan's chaotic border region with Afghanistan.

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President Obama plans to meet tomorrow in Washington with Nawaz Sharif. He's the prime minister of Pakistan, one of the most unstable nations on the planet. One subject likely to be high on the agenda is the controversial issue of U.S. drone strikes along Pakistan's chaotic border with Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Now, today Amnesty International released a new report on this. The human rights group concludes some American drone strikes may constitute war crimes. And the group is calling on the U.S. government to investigate.

GREENE: We're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves in London, where Amnesty is based. Phil, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: We should say here that U.S. drone policy has been a controversial topic for some time now. But this is Amnesty now saying there might be war crimes involved. That is a significant accusation to make, and tell us how they reached that conclusion.

REEVES: Yeah, Amnesty has reviewed 45 drone strikes that happened in North Wazirastan. That's in the tribal belt that borders Afghanistan. And these happened between January of last year and last month, and they examined nine of these in particular. And its report highlights a couple of incidents. In one, it says that according to witnesses, 18 laborers were killed when a missile crashed into their tent where they had gathered for evening meal. The second missile then struck those who came to help the wounded.

And in the second, it was an attack that killed a 68-year-old grandmother. And Amnesty said this was witnessed by some of her grandchildren, three of whom were injured.

GREENE: So, Amnesty really painting a portrait of the actual victims and making the argument that at least, in terms of their research, these are not people who should be suspected of terrorism. I mean, they're innocent civilians.

REEVES: Yes. And I think by highlighting cases like this they're bringing home their point. They say they're very concerned about these and other strikes, and that they may constitute extrajudicial executions - or war crimes. So Amnesty calls on the U.S. to comply with its obligations under international law by investigating the killings that it's documented, and by providing victims with full reparation.

It says it recognizes that some U.S. drone strikes may not violate international law. But the U.S., it says, has a legal obligation to ensure that independent investigations are conducted into these - into drone strikes - especially where civilians are involved and calls on it to make public information about its drone program.

GREENE: So is Amnesty basically saying, Phil, that the U.S. has not been transparent in terms of the impact of these attacks?

REEVES: Oh, very much so. I mean, the U.S. doesn't give details about drone strikes - or even knowledge responsibility. But officials, American officials have, of coarse, long maintained that they're based on reliable intelligence; that they're accurate; and that the vast majority of the victims are members of armed groups such as al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The president has spoken of a need for there to be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, before a strike can take place. Clearly the U.S. considers the program to be a key weapon against insurgence groups. But, of course, there's a very widespread belief in Pakistan that these strikes kill large numbers of civilians. And critics of the program say that this is why it's counterproductive because it sews resentment against the U.S., and it makes it therefore easier for the militants to operate and expand in numbers.

GREENE: An interesting timing of this report, Phil, with the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif in Washington meeting with President Obama tomorrow. It certainly adds a backdrop to that meeting.

REEVES: Yes. Mr. Sharif has long been a staunch critic of the drone strikes. So there's speculation, of course, that he would use this occasion to press for an end to them. However, there's a difference between the public and the private positions of senior Pakistani government officials on this issue. Some senior figures in government and in the army are known to have, in the past, privately supported drone strikes. And, indeed, a certain element of the Pakistani public actually feels the same way.

Incidentally, Amnesty expresses concern, too, about Pakistan and what it calls the failure of the Pakistani authorities to protect and enforce the rights of victims of drone strikes. So this is a report that's not only leveled at the United States.

GREENE: NPR's Phil Reeves joining us from London. Phil, thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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