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Barack Obama is a former law professor who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So it is ironic and disturbing that his administration is presiding over a prolonged campaign of assassination of terrorist suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, through attacks by unmanned missiles, known as drone strikes.
Over the weekend, a protest march led by the politician Imran Khan was prevented from entering the areas of Pakistan that have been heavily targeted. Pakistani protests against the drone strikes may evoke little sympathy in the US – given widespread exasperation over Pakistan’s failure to deal with Islamist militants that use the country as a base, and the fact that al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain a real threat.
MoreON THIS STORYIMF urges Pakistan to rethink tax amnesty[/*]Pakistan distances itself from film bounty[/*]Pakistan PM yields to court over Zardari[/*][/list]ON THIS TOPICPakistani film protests turn deadly[/*]US airs ad against film on Pakistan TV[/*]US declares Haqqani group ‘terrorists’[/*]Girl gets bail in Pakistan blasphemy case[/*][/list]EDITORIALChávez’s challenge[/*]UK should stand firm on BAE deal[/*]Chasing fakes[/*]Eyes on the bomb[/*][/list]Critics of the drone strikes are not confined to Pakistan, however. Independent investigations have raised disturbing questions that deserve to be answered.
A much-cited study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has claimed that, out of a total of about 3,000 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, between 474 and 884 were civilians.
Another study, conducted jointly by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities, claimed that only 2 per cent of those killed by drone strikes were senior terrorists. Allegations have been made that victims of the attacks are sometimes targeted on the basis of patterns of behaviour, rather than harder intelligence.
Aside from the pressing moral issues raised, there are important questions of international law. US actions are being observed by other major powers, such as China and Russia, which may one day use them as a precedent.
Because of the secret nature of the attacks, the White House has been reluctant to discuss the drone strikes. The little that US officials have said has provided some reassurance. The president is said to take the moral issues involved seriously, and often to review planned attacks personally. Officials claim the number of civilian casualties is remarkably low.
However, because of the secret nature of the drone programme, there is little way of checking the administration’s claims. There have been no open Congressional hearings on the subject.
As usual, national security and the need to protect intelligence sources are cited as reasons to avoid open scrutiny. That now needs to change. The questions raised about the drone strikes are serious. They need serious answers.
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