Noor Khan was a postgraduate student studying towards his MA in Political Science when his life was altered forever by a drone strike on 17th March 2011. On that day, Noor’s father, Malik Daud Khan, an esteemed tribal leader, was presiding over a jirga, a traditional meeting used to resolve disputes in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Over 40 elders were attending the jirga that day when a drone hovering overhead launched four missiles, killing Malik Daud Khan and 40 others.
Noor was at his family home in Miranshah when he got news of the drone attack. He was told that none of the elders had survived, and that his father was dead. At the site of the strike he found his father’s badly disfigured body.
Reprieve has assisted Noor in taking legal action against both the Pakistani and UK governments for their roles in covert US drone strikes.
“I can only describe the scene of the strike as carnage. Fires were scattered about everywhere and the air was saturated with the scent of burnt human flesh.”
The attack on Malik’s village caused destruction, death and widespread devastation. Noor’s family lost their only source of income in the attack and the community lost leaders from across Waziristan.
“The tragedy of March 17, 2011 has been a great loss not only for the families that lost husbands, sons and brothers, but for all the people in Datta Khel and the surrounding villages.
The men who died in this strike were our leaders; the ones we turned to for all forms of support. They are now gone, though they did nothing wrong.
The Tribal elders are now afraid to gather together in jirgas as has been the custom for more than one century. We are scared that if we get together we might be targeted again.
The mothers and wives plead with the men to not congregate together for fear that they will be targeted. They do not want to lose any more of their husbands, sons, brothers and nephews.”
Shortly after the strike, evidence emerged that the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, was supporting the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan. Reprieve and Noor took legal action against the UK government over its policy for intelligence sharing in such strikes and the potential that UK intelligence officials might be complicit in illegal strikes carried out by the US.
“I am determined to get answers from the UK government about the part they have played in the death of my father.”
In February 2014, The Court of Appeal in London found arguments put forward by Reprieve and Noor ‘persuasive‘, but rejected the case as it might result in the “condemnation of the US by a court of this country.”
“It is shameful that the risk of embarrassing the US has trumped British justice in this case. It now appears that the UK Government can get away with murder, provided it is committed alongside an ally who may be sensitive to public criticism. It is a sad day when the rights of civilian victims of drone strikes take second place to the PR concerns of the US Government.”
Kat Craig, Reprieve legal director
However, the court also noted that it was “not clear that the defence of combat immunity would be available to a UK national” tried for “murder by drone strike.” The comment came in response to arguments that the programme of strikes in Pakistan is illegal and that UK involvement could lead to UK officials facing murder charges.
“I used to think that Britain stood for justice, but now it seems as though the Government has put itself above the law. However, I am still determined to get answers from the UK Government about the part they have played in the death of my father. The CIA’s drone programme has not only killed hundreds of civilians, but is turning people in Pakistan against the US and its allies. This is why I was so upset to hear that Britain is helping the CIA to carry out these killings, and even more upset when the government refused to respond to my questions.”
In addition to litigation brought before the UK courts, Reprieve and its Pakistan partner, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, also brought litigation on behalf Noor Khan and others in the Pakistani High Court. In a decision handed down in May 2013, the Peshawar High Court declared the US guilty of war crimes for its use of drones in North West Pakistan, and ordered the Pakistani government to take a series of steps to stop future strikes.
In light of the Pakistani Government’s constitutional obligations to protect the right to life of its citizens, the court also ordered the Pakistani Government to take immediate action to stop future attacks, including taking the issue to the UN Security Council and if necessary, shooting down the drones.
Finally, 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.
“The momentous decision by the Peshawar High Court shines the first rays of accountability onto the CIA’s secret drone war. For the innocent people killed by U.S. drone strikes, it marks the first time they have been officially acknowledged for who they truly are – civilian victims of American war crimes. For those still living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the decision also provides a glimmer of hope that the terror of drones circling overhead might soon end.”
Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Director
While the drone strikes stopped for the first six months of 2014, they recently started again. As a result, Reprieve, with its partner, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, recently filed new litigation asking the court to hold the government in contempt for its failure to comply with its decision.
UN demands answers over civilian drones casualties
The Court of Appeal in London has today ruled that the case brought against the UK Government by a Pakistani victim of a drone strike cannot proceed as it might result in the “condemnation of the US by a court of this country.”
UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has refused to rule out the possibility that Britain would join the US’ covert drone programme in Yemen, despite the fact that there is no declared war in the country.
In a statement to mark Human Rights Day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that “armed drones are…being deployed, without due legal process, for the remote targeting of individuals,” and has called on states to ensure that existing international law is applied.
A UK court has heard that fear of damaging its relationship with the US must not be used as an excuse for hiding the truth of British involvement in the CIA’s covert drone war. The argument was heard in the Court of Appeal in the case of Noor Khan, who is asking the Foreign Secretary to clarify the Government’s position on sharing intelligence for use in CIA strikes, and challenging the lawfulness of such activities.