Dreaded drones: Is the U.S. guilty of war crimes by killing civilians?

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The secret use of drones by the CIA has raised its ugly head again as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both respected organizations, have suggested that some of the civilian casualties of these strikes may constitute crimes.

Attacks by U.S. drones -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- have occurred in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It is difficult to know how many strikes have taken place and where, due to the secrecy surrounding them. The reason given by the United States for conducting the foreign assaults without a declaration of war is that America needs to strike at suspected terrorists to prevent 9/11-style attacks.

This argument is generally accepted, but the human rights groups have documented that dozens of civilians have died in the attacks, contrary to statements by the Obama administration that such deaths are rare. The refusal of government to issue formal reports on its use of drones makes it impossible to know the number of casualties or the legitimacy of the targets selected.

After the human rights groups were denied U.S. official data, they gathered their own material. Human Rights Watch reported that, of six drone strikes in Yemen since 2009, 57 of the 82 fatalities were civilians. Amnesty International said that in Pakistan between May 2012 and July 2013 more than 30 civilians died in four drone assaults, including a 68-year-old grandmother who was picking vegetables.

AI's report said one of the Pakistan attacks "violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions" and that those responsible should stand trial.

President Barack Obama has defended the drone program, saying none of the attacks takes place without his approval and without careful consideration of possible casualties among noncombatants. His assertions have been an attempt to reassure American critics, but the problem is that one day, during or after his presidency, he may face charges of war crimes in some court somewhere.

Sadly, Mr. Obama is the president who has disappointed on another human rights issue. As a candidate for the White House, he promised to close the prison at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Five years into his tenure, he still hasn't.

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