(NEW YORK) MintPress – The U.S. government is coming under renewed fire for its so-called unmanned drone “targeted killing” program, aimed at alleged terrorists, which the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights says has killed hundreds of innocent civilians in countries where the targets are thought to be operating.
On Wednesday, the two groups filed a lawsuit, the first of its kind, charging that senior CIA and military officials violated the Constitution and international law when they authorized and directed drone strikes that resulted in the deaths of three U.S. citizens in Yemen last year.
The ACLU has also stepped up its demands under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that the government disclose the legal basis for its drone program, which began in 2004.
The Obama administration offered the first extensive explanation of its drone strike policy, which is under the auspices of the CIA, in April, maintaining that it was “legal, ethical and wise.” At the same time, the CIA’s general counsel, Stephen Preston, said in a speech that the agency was not bound by the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch, in response, called for the program to be brought under the control of the U.S. military.
The program has, in fact, expanded significantly since President Obama took office in 2008, with most of the attacks on targets in Pakistan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan, where the U.S. is seeking to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
The U.S. began increasing strikes in that area in May, after talks at the NATO summit in Chicago failed to lead to the progress on Pakistan’s continued closure of its Afghan borders to the alliance’s supply convoys to its troops in the country.
That has heightened tensions between Washington and Islamabad, and on Tuesday, tribal elders meeting in the FATA vowed to reject the strikes. “We all tribal people will strongly resist drone attacks, NATO supply and military operations in tribal areas, which are being carried out on behest of western alliance states,” they said in a statement.
Civilians caught in the crossfire
Reports of the number of militants versus civilian casualties differ, but the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said in a 2009 report that the U.S. government has “failed to keep track of civilian casualties of its military operations, including the drone attacks, and to provide means for citizens of affected nations to obtain information about the casualties and any legal inquests regarding them.”
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has echoed that criticism, saying that “drone missiles cause collateral damage. A few militants are killed, but the majority of victims are innocent citizens.”
This week, the list of victims expanded to include to as many as 250,000 children in the area who are being left out of the government’s polio immunization program because of the violence. The three-day campaign had hoped to cover 34 million under-five children across the country, but Pakistani tribesmen at a meeting on Wednesday endorsed a Taliban ban on the vaccinations.
“Polio vaccination will be banned until drone attacks are stopped,” said tribal elder Qadir Khan. “Drones martyr so many children, while polio afflicts one or two out of hundreds of thousand,”
Pakistani warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the Pakistani Taliban had issued the ultimatum last month.
The Taliban also condemned the immunization campaign as a cover for espionage. A Pakistani doctor was jailed in May after helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden using a hepatitis vaccination program.
The Lancet medical journal said vaccination problems last year led to Pakistan’s highest number of polio cases in a decade, 198, compared to 144 in 2010. The highly infectious disease can leave children crippled for life.
Pakistan has repeatedly protested these attacks, and last month the government summoned U.S. Charge d’Affaires Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Ministry to convey its serious concern over repeated drone strikes.
Hoagland was told that they represent a “clear red line for Pakistan” as they are unlawful, against international law and a violation of sovereignty.
Shortly afterward, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), asserted in an interview, “The drone attacks will continue. They must continue to deal with the threats in the tribal region, the ungoverned part of Pakistan.”
“This is where al-Qaida and the Taliban go to seek refuge, and these attacks coming out of Afghanistan are not attacks on the Pakistani people. They are attacks on terrorists who want to undermine us, kill our soldiers, and also undermine Pakistan,” he said.
At the same time, after a four day visit to Pakistan, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for a new investigation in the drone strikes there, referring to them as “indiscriminate” and saying they constitute human rights violations.
In a report issued on June 18, Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, called on the Obama administration to justify its use of targeted assassinations rather than attempting to capture terrorist suspects.
So far, there has been no response.