Three Quick Thoughts on the Drone Strike in Pakistan That Killed Two Innocent Civilians

Below are my initial thoughts on today’s tragic news that a January 2015 US “targeted killing” drone strike in Pakistan killed two innocent civilians held as hostages by al-Qaeda:

(1) Why the sudden transparency about the American and Italian civilian victims but not the many non-Western civilians killed in US operations? There are dozens of credible reports that the US has killed hundreds of Pakistani and Yemeni civilians. Investigations by the UN, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, and others, as well as detailed journalist accounts (e.g., see work by Iona Craig, Adam Baron, Saeed Al Batati) provide extensive evidence of civilian deaths and injuries. For years, rights-holders and international civil society have called for the release of information about civilian casualties. At a minimum, those cases should be subject to the same kind of transparency that occurred today. All of those victims and their families should be publicly acknowledged by the US government, provided compensation, and any of their legal attempts to secure accountability should be heard on the merits.

(2) Today’s news also highlights the deficiency of public debate in the US about drones and targeted killings. US officials have long stressed the great precision of drones as a weapon, thoroughness of their (still secret) targeting procedures, and of their “targeted” killings programs in Pakistan and Yemen. The news today is further cause to doubt such statements. It is well past time for a major government review of the entire program.

(3) What precautions were taken, or not taken, before this strike that resulted in civilian deaths? On what kinds of intelligence is the US relying before conducting strikes, and what standards must be met? International humanitarian law requires states to take “all feasible precautions” to prevent civilian casualties when conducting attacks. The news accounts mention that the US will be investigating what led to the deaths revealed today. The results of these investigations should be publicly released, with minimal redactions. 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).