UNITED NATIONS - Pakistan never approved American drone strikes on its territory, a top Pakistani diplomat told a UN committee Friday, saying such attacks violated international law and must be stopped.
Masood Khan, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, said the use of drones is counterproductive in the war on terror because they kill, injure and psychologically scare civilians and incite militants to retaliate.
“Let me state authoritatively that no explicit or implicit consent, approval, or acquiescence has been given by the government of Pakistan for drone strikes,” he said as two UN experts, in their reports presented to the Third Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, called for greater transparency on part of the United States in the use of the weapons.
The UN reports came at a time when the US drone policy is facing unprecedented public criticism. Earlier this week, Amnesty International said civilian drone killings in Pakistan may amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch criticised US drone strikes in Yemen.
The two UN reports said targeted drone strikes are permissible only in imminent self-defence in the midst of an armed conflict. But the reports said there was no international consensus on whether the US war on terrorism was an armed conflict. In the absence of that designation, targeting individuals could violate international law, the reports said. “Unless it is an armed conflict it is almost inconceivable that it would be lawful to use a drone to kill someone,” said Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer and author of one of the UN reports. “Even if it is an armed conflict, the Red Cross has said if you can arrest and detain someone that is what you should do.”
Among those critical of the US drone policy were Brazil, China and Venezuela as they berated the Obama administration for its intensive use of drone strikes.
In his speech, Masood Khan said, “It is not justifiable to launch strikes in the context of non-international armed conflict in the context of Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.”
Agreeing with Emmerson, he said continued drone strikes amount to a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. “We believe that civilian casualties as a result of the drone strikes do violate international humanitarian, international and human rights law,” Masood Khan argued.
Noting that there was no geographical disjunction between the location of drone strikes and primary battlefield, the Pakistani ambassador said, “A signature strike has to be justified under the international humanitarian law or international human rights law to prove that it is a legitimate act of self-defence.”
"Legally, it is important to define the geographical scope of the conflict. It is not justifiable to launch strikes in the context of non-international armed conflict in the context of Pakistan-Afghanistan border area,” he argued.
In Pakistan, he said, all drones strikes were a chilling reminder that reprisal strikes by terrorists are around the corner. “They put all Pakistanis at risk. The psychological impact of the use of drones on the relatives of civilians killed in an inhumane manner incites sentiments and hatred and radicalises more people,” Masood held. “Let me also state authoritatively that no explicit or implicit consent, approval or acquiescence has been given by Pakistan for the drone strikes,” he reiterated.
Masood Khan suggested to the rapporteur that there is no grey area in the use of armed drones when they kill innocent men, women and children. “Killing unarmed, innocent civilians is a clear breach of the international law. We call for immediate cessation of drone attacks inside the territorial borders of Pakistan. This is a demand that has been made by the prime minister of Pakistan, our Parliament and the all parities conference. This is what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conveyed to President Obama during their meeting on October 23 in Washington. We hope the US would respond to this urgent call from Pakistan anchored in international humanitarian law,” he added.
Masood Khan urged the rapporteur to make stronger recommendations in his final report that will help enforce a more stringent, prohibitive regimen for the use of drones to save civilians from unforeseen, instant death, injury and disability. Pakistan, he said, hoped that the final report would suggest practical measures to advance the debate on the legality of the use of armed drones at the UN fora and focus more sharply on their disastrous humanitarian and human rights consequences.
“Pakistan stands ready to contribute constructively to building international consensus on the legality of the use of drones,” he said in conclusion.
Emmerson and Christof Heyns who presented two reports on the drone issue at the United Nations also called on other countries to speak up about when deadly drone strikes are acceptable. The two UN special rapporteurs also urged other countries to officially say when they deem deadly drone attacks acceptable. They said lack of consensus could lead to a breakdown of peace and security as the technology is being acquired by more and more countries in the world.
According to Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, data from the Pakistani government show at least 2,200 people have been killed in Pakistan by the US drone attacks since 2004 of whom at least 400 were innocent civilians.
Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, also expressed disappointment over Washington’s response to a report by Amnesty International which questioned the legality of US drone attacks.
Emmerson said the unanimous resolution by Pakistan’s democratically elected Parliament negated any suggestion that the country had consented to the United States drone attacks. Greater transparency and accountability were also needed in the light of the international obligation to ensure full reparations to victims and their families.