WASHINGTON — The Obama administration violated international law with top-secret targeted-killing operations that claimed dozens of civilian lives in Yemen and Pakistan, according to reports from two international human rights organizations.
The Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, released on Tuesday, focused fresh attention on the most controversial facet of the U.S. campaign to cripple al-Qaida and allied Islamic extremist groups, underscoring unresolved disputes over the legality of the targeted-killing program — the vast majority of which is carried out by missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.
Despite a vow by President Barack Obama to institute greater transparency, “the administration has yet to officially disclose any new information about drone policy, the legal framework or particular strikes,” Amnesty International said.
The reports followed the release last week of a United Nations study that questioned the legality of some U.S. drone strikes and said it had identified 33 incidents “that appear to have resulted in civilian casualties.”
Obama and senior U.S. officials have defended targeted killings as legal under U.S. and international laws.
In a speech last May, the president outlined a broad legal “framework” for continuing the operations, while asserting that he wanted to scale them back amid an outcry that civilian casualties have fueled anti-U.S. extremism.
The administration says civilian casualties have been low. It contends that the operations have eliminated dozens of top al-Qaida leaders, crippling the ability of the network’s Pakistan-based leadership to mount complex global attacks.
Human Rights Watch examined six “unacknowledged” U.S. targeted-killing operations that occurred from December 2009 to April 2013. They included one incident in which cluster munitions released by U.S. Navy cruise missiles killed at least 41 civilians, the group said.
“Two of these attacks were in clear violation of international law — the laws of war — because they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons,” the Human Rights Watch report said. “The other four cases may have violated the laws of war because the individual attacked was not a lawful military target or the attack caused disproportionate civilian harm.
“In several of these cases, the U.S. also did not take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, as the laws of war require,” the report said.
The Amnesty International report reviewed 45 reported CIA drone strikes that occurred from January 2012 to August 2013 in Pakistan’s tribal area of North Waziristan, a stronghold of al-Qaida and Pakistani and Afghan extremist groups where Pakistani law doesn’t apply.
The group conducted field research into nine of the strikes, interviewing more than 60 survivors, witnesses, residents and officials.
Some U.S. drone strikes “violated the right to life” — which is protected under international human rights law — of Pakistani civilians “and may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes,” Amnesty International said.
“The U.S. appears to be exploiting the lawlessness and remote nature of the local region to evade accountability for violations of the right to life,” the group said.
Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins develops communications standards for unmanned aerial vehicles.