Four years ago lawyer Shahzad Akbar challenged drone strikes in the Peshawar high court. There wasn’t much concern about them till then though in 2006, a madrassa had been bombed, killing 81 people.
Mr. Akbar, now Legal director, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, was up against heavy odds. Lawyers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had earlier told survivors that they could not file a case against the drone strikes since in FATA, the courts did not have jurisdiction according to the Constitution. Mr. Akbar said this was misleading and the courts in FATA could look at cases if they had to do with fundamental rights.
He filed two public interest litigations in the Peshawar high court in 2011 — one on behalf of Noor Khan, whose father was killed, and one by the Foundation. That year, a jirga or tribal council was targeted by a drone. After the historic verdict in May this year, Mr. Akbar proved his academic exercise had legal standing but is disappointed that the Pakistan government has not taken it seriously.
The Peshawar high court had ruled in May, 2013 that drone strikes are a blatant violation of Basic Human Rights and against the U.N. Charter and other Resolutions and thus, it is held to be a War Crime, cognisable by the International Court of Justice.
Thanks to Mr. Akbar’s case, the political agents in Peshawar were forced to give data, which was physically verified. In North Waziristan agency, 896 civilian deaths took place from 2008 to 2012, and 209 were seriously injured. In South Waziristan, the toll was 553 dead and 126 injured in 70 strikes.
In 2010 when Mr. Akbar started out, few victims of the drone strikes were coming forward. With some difficulty, he got in touch with Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed in a drone strike. After Khan, others spoke out as well and soon it emerged that the drones had killed quite a few civilians.
Mr. Akbar also decided to involve the U.S. and the CIA in the matter and served a legal notice on behalf of Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed in a drone strike, to the CIA station chief in Pakistan asking why criminal charges should not be brought against him. He found out that that under Pakistan law, the CIA station chief could be prosecuted.“For the first time we named the CIA station chief and my point was to prove there are no holy cows. We also filed murder charges against the station chief saying he was the one giving orders for the drone strikes,” Mr. Akbar told The Hindu. The immediate effect was that 16 more affected familieswho were affected, contacted him and there was a protest outside the National Assembly.
The litigation challenging the legality of drone strikes and the cases of survivors changed the narrative, said Akbar. Till then no one was talking about the families who were affected. People from the tribal agencies of Waziristan were mobilized and even attended a jirga or a tribal council in Islamabad. Though later Tariq, a teenager who attended it was killed in a drone strike, one of the 300 children who have fallen victim. Neil Williams who worked on the film, said he had met Tariq four days before he was killed. Survivors and others took part in a peace march in Waziristan in September 2012. The campaign brought drone strikes into the political debate and parties like the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf benefited from it by eventually forming a government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Robert Greenwald’s documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, co produced by Jemima Khan, puts a human face to the “collateral damage” inflicted by drone strikes. The film interviews a drone operator Brandon Bryant who worked in the air force and who says “we kill people and break things”. He narrates the trauma of seeing people who have been bombed and maimed on his computer screen while sitting in the U.S. It has interviews of friends of Tariq who died while preparing for a soccer match. One of the survivors says no one feels safe in North Waziristan anymore.
While the high court order has directed the government to take up the matter seriously before the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and file a proper complaint, no progress has been made so far. However, Akbar is planning to file a contempt petition since the government has not followed the court’s orders to prepare a case against drone strikes at UNSC.
The court asked the government to give complete details of the losses to the U.N. Secretary General to constitute an independent War Crime Tribunal which shall have the mandate to investigate and decide if this was a war crime. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was directed to prepare a draft resolution condemning the drone strikes asking the UNSC and the U.N. General Assembly to pass it.
In case the U.S. authorities did not comply with the U.N. Resolution, whether passed by the Security Council or by the General Assembly, the Government of Pakistan shall sever all ties with the U.S. and, as a mark of protest, shall deny all logistics and other facilities to the U.S. within Pakistan, the court ruled.