U.N. investigator: U.S. drone strikes violate Pakistan sovereignty

Pakistani tribal people from South Waziristan hold a rally in Islamabad to condemn U.S. drone attacks and military operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
(B.K. Bangash / Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan— A top U.N. investigator has criticized Washington’s drone missile campaign against Islamic militants in Pakistan as a violation of the South Asian nation’s sovereignty, a stance that echoes Islamabad’s public condemnations of the tactic but not one that is expected to end U.S. airstrikes.

Ben Emmerson, U.N. special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, issued a statement Friday saying the U.S. drone campaign “involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent, and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

“Pakistan has also been quite clear that it considers the drone campaign to be counter-productive and to be radicalizing a whole new generation,” Emmerson added, “thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region.”


Emmerson’s remarks came after he made a three-day visit to Pakistan last week, meeting with top Pakistani officials as well as tribal elders and victims of drone strikes.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday saying the government clearly conveyed to Emmerson “that drone strikes are counter-productive, against international law and a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Washington’s use of drone missile strikes in northwest Pakistan’s rugged tribal regions is one of the thorniest issues in its long, troubled relationship with Islamabad. The Obama administration has consistently defended the tactic as a vital tool against Al Qaeda and Taliban militant leaders and commanders hunkered down in tribal badlands along the Afghan border. Two militant leaders who held the post of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command were killed by drone strikes last year, and a drone missile in 2009 killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud.

Although Pakistan has always publicly opposed drone strikes, many analysts believe the country’s civilian and military leadership see value in the tactic and tacitly allow the strikes to occur. A 2008 diplomatic cable obtained and posted on the WikiLeaks website cited then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s acquiescence to the drone campaign. “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people,” the cable quoted Gilani as saying. “We’ll protest in the [parliament] and then ignore it.”

However, opposition in Pakistan against the drone campaign has intensified recently as evidence gathered by international watchdog groups mounts that civilians are often killed or injured in the strikes. Emmerson said Pakistani officials told him that that at least 400 civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes, and that an additional 200 people killed were viewed by Islamabad as probable noncombatants.

The U.S. has repeatedly maintained that the civilian toll in drone strikes is minimal.

Though the use of drones in Pakistan dates back to 2004, Washington’s reliance on them dramatically increased under President Obama. Since he took office in 2009, there have been 290 drone missile strikes in Pakistan, compared with 45 between 2004 and 2008, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. drone activity. This year, the U.S. has conducted 10 drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions.


In the past, the U.S. has temporarily pulled back on its reliance on drone strikes during periods when relations between Islamabad and Washington had become increasingly strained. But it has never abandoned the tactic. Drone strikes continued despite a call from Pakistan’s parliament for a cessation last April.

Emmerson said Pakistan should be given the chance to combat terrorism with its own game plan, “which involves dialogue and development in this complex region and tackles not only the manifestations of terrorism, but also its root causes.”

Though Emmerson’s findings likely won’t change U.S. policy, Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani security analyst who provided Emmerson with case studies of civilian victims of drone strikes, said the U.N. investigator’s research does shed light on civilian victims of the U.S. drone program and highlights the risky precedent set by carrying out missile strikes on foreign territory without that government’s consent.

“It’s not about forcing the U.S. to change its policy,” Gul said. “It’s more about educating on an issue that could create dangerous precedence for other countries.”


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