Towards drone attack accountability

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's New Report on Drones in Pakistan

First published 23rd Feb 2012

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is one of the handful of organisations globally that thoroughly investigate drone casualties in Pakistan. 

Relying on a combination of media monitoring, fieldwork reporting and engaging other recording organisations, TBIJ has accumulated a well-resourced database that includes information on victims and attacks, in turn enabling sophisticated tactical analysis. One of TBIJ’s greatest strengths is its dedication to full transparency and detail; as such, there is opportunity for organisations or states to challenge its findings with credible information using a variety of variables (time, date, individuals killed, geo-spatial location, etc.).

On 4 February 2012, TBIJ released a report highlighting how drones have been used to execute tactics where noncombatants are at risk. One such category of these attacks is on funerals. The other category includes incidents where drones have been used to make follow-up attacks, during which time rescuers were searching for victims by digging through the rubble caused by preceding attacks. As TBIJ explains, between May 2009 and June 2011,

researchers have found credible, independently sourced evidence of civilians killed in ten [out of the 15] reported attacks on rescuers. In five other reported attacks, the researchers found no evidence of any rescuers – civilians or otherwise – killed.

The Every Casualty Programme, the IPN members, and the Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence share the moral premise, from which their work is developed, that deaths of armed violence should be recorded; that this is a universal principle applicable to all persons, combatants or not; and that such a universal principle is in accord with existing international law. From this flows a diversity of benefits: pragmatic, psychological, analytical, legal, and so on. Where deaths--in particular the deaths of civilians--go unrecorded, a universe of questions opens as to the legitimacy of the actions that led to their deaths; whether those that executed the attacks did their utmost to preserve civilian life; and, more fundamentally, whether those responsible are accountable for their actions.

The dispute as to whether the United States’ use of drones in Pakistan is legal is longstanding and unresolved. This matters insofar as certain legal regimes -- International Humanitarian Law or the Law of Armed Conflict and International Human Rights Law-- are said to differently engage the issue of noncombatant deaths caused by incidents such as drone attacks. Last year the Every Casualty Programme's legal team addressed this legal ambiguity and whether or not the US is responsible for recording casualties caused by drone attacks. In either case, the US has historically been ambiguous about the amount of noncombatants killed as well as the means by which they record noncombatant deaths. In 2011, US officials claimed that there were no civilian deaths without providing an explanation as to how they acquired this information. Later in the year, anonymous US officials explained that the CIA monitors civilian deaths by intercepting phone calls and emails, and by monitoring attack sites using drones. More recently, other US officials stated that the US possesses “the most accurate information on counter-terror operations,” a testament to the veracity of renewed claims that there has been limited civilian harm. Presented with alternative narratives by US officials, there remains a great lack of clarity as to whether or not the US accounts for its actions by monitoring attack sites; and whether, and if so to what degree, they misrepresent their findings. For President Obama’s top terrorism advisor to claim in 2011 that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop” is widely recognised, both within and outside of the US government, as unfounded and implausible.

The work of TBIJ and other organisations like it has given the general public opportunity to scrutinise what was intended as covert and unknowable. Because of the US’s reluctance to explain itself, the general public is encouraged to seek out answers as to whether the US is accountable for its actions; whether the US recognises that it kills civilians; and whether, in cases of civilian deaths, the US’s actions are legal.

(Other organisations within the International Practitioner Network that record casualties caused by drones in Pakistan include:

Pak Institute for Peace Studies

Pakistan Body Count

Institute for Conflict Management

Conflict Monitoring Centre)