WASHINGTON — U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan are not as precise as American officials have suggested, and some appear to have violated international law, according to a pair of reports by human rights organizations based on interviews with survivors and witnesses.
The reports by Amnesty International, which looked into drone strikes in Pakistan, and Human Rights Watch, which examined attacks in Yemen, also assert that the U.S. has killed militants when capture was a feasible option and has targeted people rushing to rescue those injured in an initial barrage.
The reports, which were distributed in advance to the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations, are scheduled to be released at a news conference Tuesday in Washington.
Amnesty examined nine attacks in Pakistan this year and in 2012 and concluded that 29 noncombatants were killed. Human Rights Watch counted 57 civilians killed in six attacks in Yemen from 2009 to 2013, including 41 in a December 2009 cruise missile attack based on faulty intelligence from the Yemeni government. Most of the strikes involved missiles fired from remotely piloted drone aircraft.
The authors of the reports acknowledge that in many cases it is difficult to say with certainty whether military-aged males killed in a particular strike were members of Al Qaeda or associated forces who had participated in or were planning attacks on U.S. interests.
Relatives often insist their dead loved ones had no connection to extremists. American intelligence officials and their congressional overseers argue that in almost all cases the strikes have hit legitimate targets. Sorting out the truth in individual cases is often impossible.
However, the human rights activists argue that mere membership in an organization or past participation in hostilities against the U.S. don't make a person a legitimate target for a drone strike under international law. And they say that despite President Obama’s pledge this year to be more transparent about the lethal operations, the U.S. is still releasing almost no information about who it is killing and why, making it impossible to definitively evaluate the legality of the strikes.
“We think these people were civilians, and the onus is on the U.S. government to prove otherwise,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International, who helped write that group’s report. “The U.S. government has this information and is withholding it.”
White House officials declined to respond in detail to the allegations. They pointed to Obama’s speech in May, in which he announced tighter standards for targeted strikes, including “a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”