America’s deadly drones programme

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly known as drones, have become the United States’ weapon of choice in the ever-expanding “war on terror”. Flown by pilots sitting safely in Nevada, these remotely-piloted aircraft have the ability to hover over communities twenty-four hours a day and to target – and kill – those below at the mere push of a button. The CIA drones programme is both the next phase in the so-called “war on terror” and the death penalty without trial. Reprieve is therefore working to expose and challenge the covert programme.


To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’s drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA. For communities living under drones, life is filled with constant terror. Nobody knows who the next target might be. Armed drones can hand down a death sentence simply because a person exhibited suspicious behaviour. Yet what that behaviour is, the United States refuses to say. Other times, the death sentence comes simply because the person fell within the target demographic: all males aged 18 to 65. According to the United States, these men are not deemed civilians unless they can prove their innocence – posthumously. The drones, sometimes as many as five or six at a time, constantly circle overhead, terrorising civilian populations, nearly half of whom are children. A recent study carried out in Yemen by clinical and forensic psychologist, Dr Peter Schaapveld, reported severe post-traumatic stress disorder in children living in areas targeted for drone strikes.


The US has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people – that we know of. The ramifications of the escalating drone age are terrifying for us all – especially, of course, for those communities in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia who are terrorised daily by the presence of drones. The UK government and UK companies are actively complicit in this covert war – through intelligence sharing, the activities of US bases on British soil, and shared assets – without any transparency or accountability to you, the British public. Through investigation, litigation and education, Reprieve is working to bring about transparency and accountability on behalf of those affected by drone strikes.

Noor Khan’s father, Malik Daud Khan, was a Pakistani tribal elder and mediator for local disputes. On March 17, 2011, Malik Daud Khan and 40 other tribal elders were killed in a US drone strike that targeted a meeting convened to resolve a dispute over a local chromite mine. The elders had notified and received permission from the Pakistani authorities for the meeting. Dozens watched helplessly as the drone overhead opened fire for reasons that are still unknown today. Noor was studying for his MA in political science at the time, and took legal action against the UK government over its policy of intelligence-sharing with the U.S. for use in drone strikes.

According to the report Living Under Drones, by Stanford and New York Universities’ Law schools, the impact of drone strikes extends far beyond the several thousand who have been killed. The report found: “Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

In May 2013, Reprieve achieved a significant victory before Peshawar High Court in Pakistan. In a case brought on behalf of several drone strike victims, the court declared US drone strikes in Pakistan illegal, and ordered the Pakistani government to take a series of steps to stop future strikes. Furthermore, the court held that the U.S. Government is bound to compensate all the victims’ families and that the Pakistani Government should take steps to ensure that this happened immediately.

Concerns have repeatedly been raised about potential UK complicity in the CIA-led drone programme. In October 2014, the Birmingham Policy Commission, chaired by Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, cited the “sinister cultural and political salience” of US drone operations, and noted that the “UK simply does not accept the specific US legal justification for using RPA [drones] for the targeted killing of AQ-related terrorist targets.” It said the government needed to ensure “safeguards” were in place to prevent “inadvertent collusion” in drone strikes that were “contrary to international law”.

There is evidence that other European governments may also be complicit in supporting this covert programme of extrajudicial killings. In October 2014, Reprieve, along with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), brought litigation in Germany in relation to Ramstein Air Base, a US base in South West Germany that plays a central role in facilitating drone strikes in Yemen. The litigation was brought on behalf of Faisal bin ali Jaber, an engineer for the Yemeni environmental protection agency, who lost his brother-in-law Salim, a local imam known for preaching against al-Qaeda, and his nephew Waleed, a policeman, in a drone strike in August 2012. It asks the German government to stop the US from using Ramstein Air Base in its covert drone programme.

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