Ferencz Condemns Drone Attacks: “A Crime Against Humanity”


“Innocent people are being blown up… somebody has to write about these things.”

Nicole Kidman speaks these words in the film “Hemingway and Gellhorn.” She plays Martha Gellhorn, perhaps the world’s greatest war correspondent, reacting to the Russians attacking Finland in World War II.

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The words hold true today with America’s obsessive drone attacks in its worldwide aggressive war on “terror.”

In news article after news article, reports site American drones killing “suspected terrorists” and often innocent people. In rare cases, the U.S. has actually reported the demise of a leading insurgent. Meanwhile, authorities on international law have responded to the drone attacks, including the latest CIA drone maneuvers in Pakistan and Yemen, with everything from condemnation to wary questioning of their legality.

“The illegal use of armed force knowing that it will inevitably kill large numbers of civilians is a crime against humanity, and those responsible should be held accountable by national and international courts,” Benjamin B. Ferenzc told Peculiar Progressive by email on June 16, when asked for a statement about America’s drone attacks. “The use of any weapon that will unavoidably kill a disproportionate number of non-combatants is an inhumane act that should be condemned and punishable as a crime against humanity under customary international law.”

Ferencz was the Army’s chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders following World War II. He told the court that the defendants’ chief crime was “aggressive war” which led to all other offences they committed. Sixty years later, in the summer of 2006, he claimed that George W. Bush should be charged with the same crime for ordering the illegal invasion of Iraq. Now Ferencz is condemning his country’s drone assaults. Since drone strikes began under George W. Bush as early as 2001, Ferencz’s complaint of crimes would include both Bush and Barack Obama.

Ferencz isn’t alone in his criticisms. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and twenty-five fellow Members of Congress on June 13 wrote to President Obama demanding the White House’s legal justification for “signature” drone strikes, which could significantly increase the risk of killing innocent civilians or those who have no relationship to a potential attack on the U.S.

In their letter, the Congress members specifically sought “the process by which ‘signature’ strikes are authorized and executed (drone strikes where the identity of the person killed is unknown); mechanisms used by the CIA and JSOC to ensure that such killings are legal; the nature of the follow-up that is conducted when civilians are killed or injured; and the mechanisms that ensure civilian casualty numbers are collected, tracked and analyzed.”

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The lawmakers went on to say:

We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States. Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight. We are further concerned about the legal grounds for such strikes under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have. They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.

Peculiar Progressive had checked on June 19 with Kucinich’s office to see if Obama had responded to the letter, but had not heard back as of noon.

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In a June 1 news story, the Times of India states that “a July 2009 Brookings Institution report shows that 10 civilians die for every one suspected militant from US drone strikes.” Also, the report cites another study by the New American Foundation which “concluded that out of 114 drone attacks in Pakistan, at least 32 per cent of those killed by the strikes were civilians.”

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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows drone strikes going back to 2001 in Yemen. Its latest figures as of June 18 for Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia show:

CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004 – 2012

Total US strikes: 332
Obama strikes: 280
Total reported killed: 2,486-3,188
Civilians reported killed: 482-832
Children reported killed: 175
Total reported injured: 1,192-1,308

US Covert Action in Yemen 2001- 2012

Total confirmed US operations (all): 44-54
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 33-43
Possible additional US operations: 95-108
Possible additional US drone strikes: 52-62
Total reported killed (all): 317-884
Total civilians killed (all): 58-138
Children killed (all): 24

US Covert Action in Somalia 2007 – 2012

Total US strikes: 10-21
Total US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 58-169
Civilians reported killed: 11-57
Children reported killed: 1-3

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By June 18, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, brought her concern about American drone attacks in Pakistan to the UN Human Rights Council. According to an advance copy (June 17) of her speech, she stated:

During my visit [to Pakistan the previous week], I also expressed serious concern over the continuing use of armed drones for targeted attacks, in particular because it is unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities. The Secretary-General has expressed concern about the lack of transparency on the circumstances in which drones are used, noting that these attacks raise questions about compliance with distinction and proportionality. I remind States of their international obligation to take all necessary precautions to ensure that attacks comply with international law. I urge them to conduct investigations that are transparent, credible and independent, and provide victims with effective remedies.

Pillay’s statement, while seeming reasonable, is actually a step back for the UN. In October 2009 a UN human rights investigator warned that the U.S. drone attacks might breach international law. Philip Alston told the UN General Assembly:

Of the many concerns that I raised, one has grown dramatically in importance since June [2009]. It concerns the use of unmanned drones or predators to carry out targeted executions. While there may be circumstances in which the use of such techniques is consistent with applicable international law, this can only be determined in light of information about the legal basis on which particular individuals have been targeted, the measures taken to ensure conformity with the international humanitarian law principles of discrimination, proportionality, necessity and precaution, and the steps taken retrospectively to assess compliance in practice. I consider that, unless the US Government moves to answer these questions, it will increasingly be perceived as carrying out indiscriminate killings in violation of international law.

The major question: Considering the gravity of conditions listed in both the Congress members’ June letter and Alston’s 2009 UN report, what’s taken the federal legislators and UN so long to push the drone issue, and with weaker language compared to historic Nazi-prosecutor Ferencz?

The drone strikes agenda surely lies in Obama’s hands, according to The New York Times. In a May 29 article entitled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane note, “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the [kill] chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.”

And in an appalling opposition to America’s innocent-until-proven-guilty justice system, the Obama drone policy, according to the Times article, calls any adult a combatant, only judged innocent after death:

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Asked about the Times article the same day in a press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained:

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I think your [the Times] description of the policy is not quite exact. I would refer you to John Brennan’s speech not long along on these matters, in which he was very explicit and transparent about methods that are used in our counterterrorism operations and the care that is taken to avoid civilian casualties. We have at our disposal tools that make avoidance of civilian casualties much easier, and tools that make precision targeting possible in ways that have never existed in the past.

And I think that this administration’s commitment, this President’s commitment to, A, go after those who would do harm to the United States and do harm to our allies is clear. This President’s first and primary — this President’s first priority is the protection of the United States, protection of the citizens of this country, and he takes that responsibility enormously seriously. And that is why he has pursued the fight against al Qaeda in the very direct way that he has.

Carney was referring to John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser. In a May 1 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Brennan said:

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective, while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.

The statistics offered by the Brookings Institution, The New American Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism would seem to disagree with Brennan’s assessment.

In columns to come for the Clyde Fitch Report, we’ll have Peculiar Progressive take a look at Obama’s responding, or not, to Congress and the UN, along with other issues dealing with drone attacks overseas and drone surveillance throughout America’s air space.