“This is the first time that victims are suing their own government for failing to protect their lives against drone strikes,” said Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights.
Akbar filed the lawsuits in the Peshawar High Court on behalf of relatives and victims of a March 17, 2011, drone strike in North Waziristan, in the tribal region near the border with Afghanistan. Fifty people were killed, including members of a traditional tribal jirga. The gathering of tribal elders had convened to resolve a mining dispute, according to the court papers.
The lawsuits call on the government not only to categorize the strikes as war crimes and seek prosecutions, but also to appeal to the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice to stop them.
“We would like to know if Pakistan consents or has tacitly approved the drone strikes. Or if they have an agreement with the U.S. government on these drone strikes, and if so, it should be open to judicial scrutiny,” Akbar said.
The airstrikes started in 2004. Precise numbers are not available but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Britain says drone have killed between 479 and 821 civilians in 322 drone strikes since then.
U.S. officials have said that targeting has improved and collateral damage is minimal. President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, last month characterized civilian casualties from drone strikes as “exceedingly rare.”
“We only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances,” Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“As the president and others have acknowledged, there have indeed been instances when — despite the extraordinary precautions we take — civilians have been accidentally injured, or worse, killed in these strikes. It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened. When it does, it pains us and we regret it deeply, as we do anytime innocents are killed in war.”
Besides treating the drone attacks as an act of war, the lawyer says Pakistan has several other options, including severing diplomatic relations with the United States, expelling the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, recalling the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, calling on the United Nations to send its special rapporteurs to investigate and issue a legal opinion, demanding reparations for the victims, initiating domestic criminal prosecutions and shooting down the drones within Pakistani air space.
“They should be taking other steps first,” Akbar said. “And if none of these steps bear any fruit, then they should take this last step of shooting down the drones.”