My Gulf News column on January 16 was primarily about the ever-escalating American practice of assassination by drones, carried out in Yemen, and the complicity of the top brass of the current Yemeni government. The US carried out 42 targeted drone strikes in Yemen last year — way up from 10 the year before. That is nearly one every week.
As if by a stroke of luck, the column received a boost from a number of articles in papers and on websites — thanks to Hooria Mashhoor, the Minister of Human Rights in the Government of Yemen. It is one thing for a columnist to criticise the activity and quite another for a cabinet minister to do so. In lawless Yemen, that takes a lot of guts.
In an article titled ‘Yemen minister urges ground ops, not drones, against militants’, Mahmoud Habboush wrote that Hooria has criticised the use of pilotless US drones against suspected Al Qaida militants in Yemen — a tactic that has outraged communities in targeted areas — and urged to ground such operations to avoid hurting civilians. Hooria reportedly said: “All we are calling for is justice and reliance on international regulations with regard to human rights and to be true to our commitment to our citizens in that they all deserve a fair trial.” And “... we’re calling for changing the means and strategies. These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”
Wikileaks revealed that former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had agreed to take responsibility for US attacks. Now, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has favoured the same approach. He is reported to have said: “They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error!” Not surprisingly, he has been the darling of the US Ambassador in Sana’a, being more effective against Al Qaida than Saleh. It looks as if President Hadi was regurgitating what he was told to say. Otherwise, how will he explain the fact, as broadcast by Al Jazeera, that between 2004 and 2012, 800 civilians were killed? We know that in warfare, for every kill, there are approximately five non-fatal injuries. ABC News just published the following item: “Al Qaida’s No 2 in Yemen died of wounds sustained in a US drone attack last year in southern Yemen.” President Hadi should visit the “Drones Watch” website where he can read the names of 25 Yemeni citizens, assassinated children, including 15 girls and 10 boys between 1 and 19 years — let alone 108 Pakistani children. Then let him spout about “zero margin of error”!
Drone attacks in Pakistan have been exempted from the guidelines which President Barack Obama was set to define and there is every reason to believe that the same goes for Yemen. In any case, Yemen is a willing partner, giving whole-hearted support to the US. Unlike her Yemeni counterpart, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, has stated that drone attacks are violations of international laws and prove to be counter-productive. If the Pakistani foreign minister means what she says then this gives some hope to innocent civilians who are potential victims of these so-called “surgical” strikes.
The only good news in this ten-year-old tragedy of deadly drones comes from the UN. It is reported that Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, will formally launch an inquiry into the civilian impact of the use of drones, focusing on the applicable legal framework and factual evidence concerning civilian casualties. This should lead to recommendations to the UN General Assembly regarding the duty of states to conduct effective independent and impartial investigations into the legality and proportionality of such attacks, to be presented later this year. It is appropriate that the venue for this launch will be the law chambers at Grays Inn, London. It is only fair to mention that Pakistan was one of the countries that requested this inquiry.
Juan Cole put it very succinctly in an article on Reader Supported News on January 26: “The people being targeted by the drones are not an enemy army of a state on which the US has declared war. They are suspected criminals or terrorists. But they haven’t been put on trial.”
It is almost certain that the legality and proportionality of the attacks will be severely criticised. It is more certain that the recommendations will be ignored by Nobel laureate Obama.
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sana’a and Two Boys from Aden College. His non-fiction book My Arab Spring, My Canada was published last October.