According to the initial reporting from the US officials, the August 29 drone strike aimed at annihilating members of the militant group Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) was described as a successful operation that destroyed a car filled with “multiple suicide bombers” posing an imminent threat to US-led troops leaving Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
The celebratory mood did not last long, as witness reports that emerged shortly after the incident in Kabul’s Khwaja Burgha neighborhood debunked the Pentagon’s narrative by exposing the ugly truth. The casualties were not terrorist savages but 10 innocent members of the Ahmadi family, including seven children.
After photos showing victims right before their deaths had emerged and actual footage of their horror began circulating on social media, it became clear that the youngest victims were just two years old. Another one killed in the strike was a 36-year-old former Afghan serviceman and employee of the US charity organization Nutrition & Education International, identified as Zamaray Ahmadi.
Although because of the public pressure the Pentagon was later forced to admit that the assassination of these civilians was a “tragic mistake,” and “ex gratia condolence payments” to the Ahmadi family have been raised during a recent online meeting between Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl and the founder and president of Nutrition & Education International, Dr Steven Kwon, the accountability for similar actions remains the great unknown.
As of September 18, the US had made no direct contact with the family of the victims, according to Emal Ahmadi’s 22-year-old nephew Farshad Haidari, who told the Agence France-Presse news agency, “They must come here and apologize to us face-to-face.”
Furthermore, despite Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s assertions last month that the Pentagon “will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake,” there is little hope that this is the case – bearing in mind that the similar incidents concerning killing large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria had already taken place in the past, according to numerous reports by The New York Times and Reuters, among others.
In fact, “the military has repeatedly suppressed information on civilian casualties,” as Nick McDonell, author of a 2018 book titled The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars, argues. “The drone program is opaque, with extremely limited accountability for anyone involved.”
Bearing in mind that most of the US drone strikes in Afghanistan have taken place in rural areas, and the fact that there is a direct correlation between the intensity of strikes and decries in the investigation of civilian deaths in their result, there is little hope for meaningful justice for the victims, apart from this isolated case.
Public outrage depends on the attention that the mainstream media will pay to drone killings. From the perspective of international humanitarian law (The Hague and Geneva Conventions), it is clear that drones are indiscriminate weapons and therefore illegal because they contravene the two core rules of IHL – the distinction between military and civilian targets and the principle of proportionality.
Moreover, they entail serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US and all NATO countries are bound to observe.
It is worth noting that the concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee following the examination of the US fourth periodic report in 2014 condemned targeted killings using unmanned aerial vehicles as contrary to Article 6 of the ICCPR.
“The Committee is concerned about … the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks,” we can read in the document.
“The Committee remains concerned about the State party’s very broad approach to the definition and geographical scope of ‘armed conflict,’ including the end of hostilities, the unclear interpretation of what constitutes an ‘imminent threat,’ who is a combatant or a civilian taking direct part in hostilities, the unclear position on the nexus that should exist between any particular use of lethal force and any specific theatre of hostilities, as well as the precautionary measures taken to avoid civilian casualties in practice (Articles 2, 6 and 14).”
Similarly, in his 2010 report to the Human Rights Council, Professor Philip Alston denounced indiscriminate killings through drones and concluded that the rationale given for their use “eviscerate the human rights law prohibition against the arbitrary deprivation of life. In addition, drone killing of anyone other than the target (family members or others in the vicinity, for example) would be an arbitrary deprivation of life under human rights law and could result in State responsibility and individual criminal liability.”
In 2014, Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism, issued a damning report condemning the “accountability vacuum” for civilian killings by drones.
As a UN independent expert on international order, one of the authors of this article agreed with Alston and Emmerson and decried the institutional impunity of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, insisting that there is state responsibility – both civil and penal – and an obligation by those states causing “collateral damage” to make reparations to the victims and their families.
Unfortunately, although empirical evidence demonstrates the incompatibility of the use of drones with international law, the US will continue ignoring the Human Rights Committee and the special rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council because they lack enforcement mechanisms.
It seems that drones will continue to be used with impunity until the international community agrees to exercise universal jurisdiction over war criminals, arrest them when they enter their jurisdiction and thus vindicate the rights of the victims of such savagery.
Above all else, the question remains: What is the right amount of money that can make up for the loss of innocent life?
The mainstream media would be well advised to cease whitewashing these crimes, playing down the human cost of drones and disseminating disinformation about a supposed “legal black hole.” The priority must always be to provide immediate assistance (not just money) to the victims and ensure that the new prosecutor at the International Criminal Court vigorously and expeditiously investigates these crimes.