State Department, White House spokespersons claim watchdogs don’t have complete picture of casualties.
The United States hit back Tuesday at charges that its drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen violate international law, arguing that criticism from rights groups does not reflect events on the ground.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both released reports Tuesday, detailing civilian casualties in a number of U.S. operations in Pakistan and Yemen. The two groups said the drone strikes they examined appeared to fall short of international laws, and Amnesty suggested that attacks in Pakistan over the last two years “may have resulted in unlawful killings that constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”
Amnesty, citing NGO and Pakistani government sources, said it appeared between 400 to 900 civilians had been killed in more than 300 strikes from 2004 to September. But the watchdog stressed it could not confirm the figures, because the U.S. “refuses to release detailed information about individual strikes.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. has carried out 80 targeted operations in Yemen since 2009, including strikes from drones, warplanes and cruise missiles—killing at least 473 people.
“We are reviewing these reports carefully,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on the eve of talks between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “To the extent these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.”
Carney also said that by deciding to use drone aircraft against terror suspects, rather than sending in troops or using other weapons, Washington was “choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
The State Department also took issue with the figures on civilian deaths, saying there was a “wide gap” between the U.S. assessment of casualties and the numbers cited in the reports.
Although unwilling to provide U.S. figures in order to protect their sources, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted Washington’s figures were more accurate. “The intelligence community has a lot of streams of information it gets—some classified, some from very sensitive platforms,” Harf told reporters in a heated briefing. Such information went to U.S. analysts, and “that’s a much more complete picture than any one or two groups would have just from talking to folks on the ground.”
“We do believe our numbers are more accurate,” she insisted, although conceded that many areas where drone strikes happen are remote and hard to access.
Sharif on Tuesday called on the United States to end the drone attacks, which he called “a major irritant” in ties ahead of his White House talks on Wednesday.
But Harf said “it’s more complicated than that,” adding that counterterrorism was a “shared threat, and we’ll continue talking about it with them going forward.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are jointly calling on the U.S. Congress to fully investigate specific cases the two organizations documented in their reports as well as other potentially unlawful strikes, and to disclose any evidence of human rights violations to the public. Those responsible for unlawful killings should be appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.
The groups called on Obama to provide a full legal rationale for targeted killings in Yemen and elsewhere.