Fazillah, age 25, lives in Maidan Shar, the central city of Afghanistan’s Wardak province. She married about six years ago, and gave birth to a son, Aymal, who just turned five without a father. Fazillah tells her son, Aymal, that his father was killed by an American bomber plane, remote-controlled by computer.
That July, in 2007, Aymal’s father was sitting in a garden with four other men. A weaponised drone, what we used to call an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV, was flying, unseen, overhead, and fired missiles into the garden, killing all five men.
Now Fazillah and Aymal share a small dwelling with the deceased man’s mother. According to the tradition, a husband’s relatives are responsible to look after a widow with no breadwinner remaining in her immediate family. She and her son have no regular source of bread or income, but Fazillah says that her small family is better off than it might have been: one of the men killed alongside her husband left behind a wife and child but no other living relatives that could provide them with any source of support, at all.
Aymal’s grandmother becomes agitated and distraught speaking about her son’s death, and that of his four friends. “All of us ask, ‘Why?’” she says, raising her voice. “They kill people with computers and they can’t tell us why. When we ask why this happened, they say they had doubts, they had suspicions. But they didn’t take time to ask ‘Who is this person?’ or ‘Who was that person?’ There is no proof, no accountability. Now, there is no reliable person in the home to bring us bread. I am old, and I do not have a peaceful life.”
Listening to them, I recall an earlier conversation I had with a Pakistani social worker and with Safdar Dawar, a journalist, both of whom had survived drone attacks in the area of Miran Shah, in Pakistan’s Waziristan province. Exasperated at the increasingly common experience which they had survived and which too many others have not, they began firing questions at us.
“Who has given the license to kill and in what court? Who has declared that they can hit anyone they like?”
“How many ‘high level targets’ could there possibly be?”
“What kind of democracy is America,” Safdar asks, “where people do not ask these questions?”
One question Fazillah cannot answer for her son is whether anyone asked the question at all of whether to kill his father. Forbes Magazine reports that the Air Force has sixty-five to seventy thousand analysts processing drone video surveillance. A Rand review states they actually need half again that number to properly handle the data. Asked to point to the human who actually made the decision to kill her husband, she can only point to another machine.
In June 2010, Philip G. Alston, then the U.N’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council and testified that “targeted killings pose a rapidly growing challenge to the international rule of law…In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated.”
“Such an expanded and open-ended interpretation of the right to self defense comes close to destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the United Nations Charter. If invoked by other states in pursuit of those they deemed to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”
This past week, on February 23, the legal action organisation Reprieve spoke up on behalf of more than a dozen Pakistani families who had lost loved ones in drone strikes, and asked the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the attacks as illegal human rights violations.