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Stanford Law report claims drone strikes bolster militant groups, kill innocents

A joint Stanford Law SchoolNYU School of Law report released on Monday claims that drone strikes conducted by the CIA in northern Pakistan have not made the United States notably safer, arguing that evidence to that effect is “ambiguous at best,” and that drone strikes may in fact help militant groups recruit members.

The 146-page report, titled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” is focused on the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), most specifically on a region within FATA known as North Waziristan.

“We’re trying to…change the terms of the debate so that people recognize that…even if we haven’t declared war on Pakistan – and we haven’t – for the people living under drones, they feel as though they’re living in a war zone,” Stanford Law School Professor James Cavallero said.

Cavallero is one of the study’s lead authors along with Stanford Clinical Lecturer Stephan Sonnenberg and NYU School of Law professor Sarah Knuckey. The report was a collaboration between Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic.

Researchers went on two fact-finding investigations to the Afghani-Pakistani border region, speaking with more than 130 Pakistanis, many of whom are victims or are related to victims of drone strikes. Because FATA is cordoned off by the Pakistani military, the team had to arrange for the 69 interview subjects who live in FATA to go to Islamabad or other cities outside FATA region, a task Cavallero said was exceptionally difficult.

“It was horrifying, talking to somebody and having them tell you that they’ve lost their leg and they don’t know why. All they know is that a missile hit them,” Stanford Law student and clinic member Mohammad Ali said. “One father had lost his son and we asked him how he felt. For him, no matter what we did, we could listen to what he said, we could apologize for our government’s action, but it wasn’t going to bring [his son] back.”

Interviewees reported that they are wary of attending weddings or funerals for fear that the drone operator at the CIA will decide that the people at the gathering are exhibiting a “pattern of life” that identifies them as terrorists. The Obama administration implemented the “pattern of life” standard for drone strikes, which analyzes the activities of unidentified groups to determine plausible terrorist affiliation.

“All of the interviews were really moving to me because all of the interviewees had come such a long way and taken such a risk, braving curfews and sometimes violence to come and…spend one hour with our team telling their story,” said Omar Shakir ’07 J.D. ’13, another a member of the Stanford Law clinic behind the report.

“We hope that this report will add to the chorus of voices among society that are calling for a reevaluation of our target-killing program,” Shakir said.

Since the report was released, numerous international news organizations have picked up the story including the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and The New York Times At War blog, which said the report was “among the most thorough on the subject to date.”

The Stanford clinic began with a three-week seminar last spring to prepare students for the fieldwork. After the clinic was complete, four of the students in the clinic stayed through the summer to assist in writing the report.

“Much of the work and a lot of the thinking and strategizing and working through the report is student work,” Cavallero said.

“One thing you learn from the human rights clinic is that law is one avenue to bring about change,” Ali said. “Advocacy is also very important. Along with that goes critical thinking. There are certain types of advocacy that might end up harming your cause sometimes, so you want to create a human rights report that is comprehensive and accurate and respectful of all cultures.”

The first sentences of the report strongly takes to task how drone use is perceived in the United States:

“In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.”

The report goes on to highlight concerns with drone use including that the U.S. government defines “militants” as all males of military age – absent of exonerating evidence, the drone strikes’ effects on boosting anti-Americanism and undermining Pakistani democracy, the commonplace “double-tap” strike protocol (when a second strike hits just as first-responders arrive at the scene), and non-military CIA personnel having control over the drone strike program.

“We’re a human rights clinic, so we work on human rights issues all over the world,” Cavallero said. “Since we’re based in the United States, we feel some obligation to assess the policies and practices of the United States to see if they are or if they are not in compliance with international law and international human rights legal norms.”

Cavallero held that the challenge now is figuring out how to follow up on this report and further engage the issue of drone strikes, depending on the reception of Living Under Drones.

“There is some push-back from people who are not happy with what we’re saying, there are some blogs out there that are attacking us, but I think what they’re going to find is that the report is extremely well researched and documented,” he said.

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