A new Amnesty International report renews the call for greater transparency in the U.S. drone policy in Pakistan and Yemen, saying drones strikes have unlawfully killed civilians, including a 14-year-old boy in one incident. The report comes as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets with President Barack Obama this week. Kojo explores the debate over drones.


  • Naureen Shah Advocacy Advisor, Amnesty International USA
  • Farahnaz Ispahani Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center


  • 13:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, what entrepreneurs and officials are doing to make our area more attractive as a start-up hub.

  • 13:07:09

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, reports just released by two human rights groups call on the U.S. to be more transparent about civilian deaths and drone strikes. In one of the reports Amnesty International documented strikes in Pakistan that have unlawfully killed civilians, including one incident involving a 68-year-old grandmother.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe report comes as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets with President Obama this week. Joining us to discuss this is Naureen Shah, she is an advocacy advisor at Amnesty International. Naureen Shah joins us in studio, welcome.

  • 13:07:45

    MS. NAUREEN SHAHThanks for having me.

  • 13:07:46

    NNAMDIJoining us from studios at the Wilson Center is Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani politician, currently a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. Farahnaz Ispahani, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:01

    MS. FARAHNAZ ISPAHANIThank you for having me on.

  • 13:08:01

    NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions and would like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the U.S. needs to be more transparent when it comes to the circumstances around drone strikes? 800-433-8850. You can send us email to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 13:08:23

    NNAMDINaureen Shah, tell us about the Amnesty International report that was just released. What region did you look at and given the lack of official information, how did you put this report together?

  • 13:08:33

    SHAHWe're looking at North Waziristan and Pakistan, which is one of the areas of Pakistan that has had, perhaps, the most drone strikes and has seen the most damage for the people who are living there. Now these are communities that face violence and attack not only from U.S. drone strikes but also by the Pakistani military and also by local armed groups.

  • 13:08:52

    SHAHSo they are people who are in need of help, not just in terms of safety from drone strikes from above, but remedies and recognition for their dignity and their rights as human beings from all the parties to what's going on in north Pakistan.

  • 13:09:09

    NNAMDIWhat did this Amnesty International report find?

  • 13:09:11

    SHAHWe found that the U.S. government has committed unlawful killings in North Waziristan. One of the cases that we documented in the report is of a 68-year-old woman. She went out to gather vegetables in the family field. It was largely vacant and she was killed in a drone strike before the eyes of some of her grandchildren.

  • 13:09:33

    SHAHIn a second case, we found that 18 laborers were killed, including a 14-year-old boy.

  • 13:09:39

    NNAMDIEighteen laborers who had nothing to do with any activity in which the U.S. was interested in?

  • 13:09:44

    SHAHRight. Our report actually identifies some of their names, some of their occupations and as far as we could tell, there isn't a reasonable basis. Now ultimately the onus is on the U.S. government to come forward and provide the information and show that these killings were lawful.

  • 13:10:00

    NNAMDIFarahnaz Ispahani, there are those, on the other hand, who argue that drone strikes do serve a purpose. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:10:08

    ISPAHANIYes. I think that the Amnesty report has been extremely important and it's true that clearly, two things. There are major issues with the legality of drones. But it also demonstrates a major transnational terrorist problem in the FATA area of North Waziristan, Pakistan.

  • 13:10:33

    ISPAHANIFirstly, Kojo, drones do serve a purpose. They can go to areas not assessable to the military and law enforcement and have been proven to be effective in eliminating senior terrorists, enemies of the United States, enemies, more importantly for me, for the Pakistani people.

  • 13:10:55

    ISPAHANIHowever, drones have caused a great deal of resentment within Pakistani society and have undoubtedly hurt Pakistan and the United States vis-a-vis their relationship. Therefore, I feel it's crucial that both the United States and Pakistan come clean on the drone policy.

  • 13:11:18

    ISPAHANIThe reason I mention Pakistan coming clean on the drone policy is something that is not clear in the Amnesty report, but a recently-released U.N. report suggests there is "strong evidence that top Pakistani military and intelligence approvals, officials approve U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil during 2004 and 2008" and this report is by Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism.

  • 13:11:53

    ISPAHANIThis report is going to lead to a debate at the U.N. General Assembly on October 25, 2013 so clearly this is absolutely -- there's a major legality issue, but it seems that both governments perhaps have involvement with this.

  • 13:12:16

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Farahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani politician, currently a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. Naureen Shah is an advocacy advisor of Amnesty International U.S.A. Do you think drone strikes are necessary to address terrorist threats? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Naureen Shah, what information does the U.S. provide on drone strikes?

  • 13:12:41

    SHAHZero information, what we've seen from the Obama administration is promises of transparency. President Obama made a speech about half a year ago promising increased disclosure. Since that time we haven't seen any new disclosures from the administration.

  • 13:12:56

    SHAHWe still don't know who is being killed, how many people have been killed and what the legal and factual basis for these killings is.

  • 13:13:01

    NNAMDINo reports from the administration, nevertheless we do see reports in the newspapers about these strikes and information on the number of casualties. Where does that information come from?

  • 13:13:12

    SHAHWhat we have are reporters who are sometimes getting information from local Pakistani officials. What has to be recognized is that there's a great deal of misinformation about drone strikes. There's propaganda. This is an incredibly politically-driven issue.

  • 13:13:25

    SHAHSo what Amnesty International did was document as well as we could, and we did some of the most detailed documentation of drone strikes ever conducted by sending teams into North Waziristan, having them interview individuals separately, corroborating the evidence with satellite imagery, audio and video evidence from the locations of the strikes themselves.

  • 13:13:46

    SHAHBut it has to be recognized that only the U.S. government really has the obligation to be investigating these cases and it needs to come out and publically commit to doing that now.

  • 13:13:56

    NNAMDIDoes the U.S. report any information on the number of civilian casualties or the number of investigations into those deaths or what those investigations reveal?

  • 13:14:06

    SHAHYeah, strangely the U.S. government has never even committed to investigating any of the allegations of credible civilian harm that have emerged over the last few years. It hasn't provided any data on who is being killed, the numbers. We know that four U.S. citizens have been killed but a senator has said that maybe 4,700 have been killed altogether.

  • 13:14:25

    SHAHSo who are the other several thousand people who have been killed? The U.S. government touts secrecy and it touts success but it won't tell us who those people are.

  • 13:14:33

    NNAMDIFarahnaz Ispahani, you have said that both Pakistan and the U.S. need to be more transparent around drone policy. I guess there are people who would say, how can you be transparent about something that is secret in nature? How can you be transparent when you're fighting people who are by definition undercover? How do you reveal yourself to the public and to these people without compromising your effectiveness?

  • 13:14:58

    ISPAHANIWell, I mean, I think it's very clear that from the comments in the U.N. report, from comments that former military dictator and president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, said in an interview to CNN earlier this year, that his government had given drone approval himself.

  • 13:15:21

    ISPAHANIThen it becomes an issue of therefore both the United States and the Pakistan government or state are lying to the people, lying to their parliaments and Congress so there is a need for a great deal of transparency on this issue. But I think it needs to be a little bit more nuanced in terms of is the U.S. really doing this and breaching Pakistan sovereignty or is there somehow, you know, on both sides, is there some sort of secret agreement?

  • 13:15:57

    ISPAHANISo I, as a Pakistani, believe strongly that both governments need to come forward and be clear, report to the people, report to the public.

  • 13:16:07

    NNAMDIWhat has been the response in general, as far as you know, to drone strikes in Pakistan by the Pakistani public? I raise that question because some would say because the drone strikes, from what we are hearing being reported here, are so immensely unpopular in Pakistan that the Pakistani government may be reluctant to reveal its own cooperation.

  • 13:16:32

    ISPAHANIYeah, I think we are at the point we're at because one cannot talk about certain things publicly because they were obviously secret missions but there have been people, Pakistani parliamentarians who are from the FATA region of Pakistan who are colleagues of mine in parliaments, ministers, many people from that area who privately have shared with me that drone strikes are far better because there's less, as the term is used, collateral damage.

  • 13:17:14

    ISPAHANIThan if Pakistan uses F-16s which, you know, I mean cause a huge amount of death and bloodshed. So this is a, people do understand this but on the other hand I think because of the lack of transparency the true numbers aren't known. The true incidents aren't known and this has created a lot of, you know a lot of upset and a feeling of Pakistan and Pakistanis' dignity and sovereignty of our country being breached.

  • 13:17:52

    ISPAHANISo I do agree with Amnesty but I would say that both governments need to come forward.

  • 13:17:59

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Sukriya in La Plata, Md. Sukriya, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:18:05

    SUKRIYAHello, I have this lady's, you know, website in my Facebook space and I really like -- I enjoy the reading. My question is, what should we do to stop all these things done by the American government? I mean, I think we need to get together more and do some kind of protest in D.C.

  • 13:18:27

    SUKRIYAAnd I don't think, it's not just only these drone strikes and you know, sometimes the American government, they really don't care about the lives because when Israel government did their operation on the Turkish ship and they were there only peace reason. They wanted to help this, you know, Pakistani people for the medical help, but Israel did.

  • 13:18:49

    SUKRIYAThey attack like, they kill ten Turkish people and the American government didn't do nothing about it. And the same thing here, like Pakistan. If these people were American, would the American government do the same thing? That was my question. These are the human. We're not talking about something else. These are humans. These are babies. You know, I don't know. I'm from Muslim country I feel bad for everybody even Christian people.

  • 13:19:16

    NNAMDISukriya, we also got an email from Alexis in Bethesda who says: "The U.S. cannot lead the world toward democracy particularly in this part of the world while carrying out drone strikes that kill civilians. Americans deserve more information and full investigations in cases where civilians are killed."

  • 13:19:32

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Scott in Kensington, Md. "Can someone please explain why the death of innocents is worse because they're committed by drones? Would they rather be unjustly killed by piloted warplanes or artillery? In the absence of any good reason, why it is worse? One can only conclude that they're looking for an excuse to vilify the U.S." To which you say, Naureen Shah, what?

  • 13:19:54

    SHAHIt's not about drones, per se, it's about the kind of secrecy and impunity with which the United States government is using drones. We're calling on President Obama to come clean about these killings, killings straightforwardly killings. A 68-year-old grandmother, a 14-year-old boy. Drones don't provide an excuse for those killings. There is so much that the public can do. AmnestyUSA.org/drones, we're asking President Obama to tell the truth about what happened to this grandmother. We're asking congress to investigate these cases and we're doing a lot.

  • 13:20:23

    NNAMDISukriya, thank you for your call. Naureen, President Obama earlier this year said the administration was committed to narrower guidelines and more transparency when it comes to drone attacks. You have said that since then, nothing.

  • 13:20:36

    SHAHThat's right. It's incredibly disappointing for the Obama Administration, which has pledged transparency repeatedly, which has tried to claim the mantel of openness and accountability to continue to fail. What we're asking President Obama -- I mean, he's meeting tomorrow with the head of the Pakistani government and we're asking him to address this issue. To commit to investigating these cases and to end the policy of secrecy that has really made it impossible for anyone to continue to trust his assurances that he will change his ways.

  • 13:21:10

    NNAMDIThe UN is also working on a report that was made public last week along similar lines, criticizing the lack of transparency of the U.S. on drone strikes. What did that report find?

  • 13:21:21

    SHAHWell, that report is an interim report that is looking at cases of U.S. drone strikes and also Israeli drone strikes. And what the important thing to know about these, all of these reports is that the onus is ultimately on the U.S. government to come forward. We at Amnesty International, the UN can come forward and provide documentation of killings. But this is something that we have actually been doing for years. And the Obama Administration has continued to be silent about what's happening.

  • 13:21:47

    NNAMDIFarahnaz Ispahani, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will meet with president Obama on Wednesday. Do you expect drone strikes and civilian casualties to be a part of their conversation?

  • 13:21:58

    ISPAHANIAbsolutely. You know, in terms of public opinion within Pakistan, drone strikes are a very, very big issue. And Mr. Nawaz Sharif represents urban middle class Pakistan. Not necessarily the areas where these drone strikes are going on. But his constituency is the constituency which feels most strongly on this issue. So yes, he will bring it up but whether there is any success on this, we'll have to wait and see because President Obama has been quite clear that the loss of U.S. lives, it's something he just does not want to risk. And, you know, that he finds perhaps the drones to be more effective.

  • 13:22:56

    ISPAHANIAnd as I said before, within Pakistan also, people who are in the know understand that there's less collateral damage. But, you know, this trip will -- is -- definitely shows an improvement on ties between the United States and Pakistan. But however, it's -- I feel it's going to be, again, a blip, feel-good movement that will quickly pass unless the fundamentals of Pakistan's policy toward the U.S. and U.S. policy towards Pakistan change.

  • 13:23:30

    ISPAHANIAnd because of terrorism issues within Pakistan, because of the drone issues with the United States, there are a lot of issues that have not been resolved over, I would say, the last 25 years. So many visits have taken place over the last quarter of a century, but until issues like terrorism and nuclear issues, etcetera are not resolved, the overall relationship cannot change. So yes, drones will be discussed but I don't see any change in the policy.

  • 13:24:06

    ISPAHANIAlthough 2013 the records show there have been almost no drone strikes this year.

  • 13:24:14

    NNAMDINaureen Shah, what do you hope will come of this meeting?

  • 13:24:17

    SHAHWe would like to see President Obama immediately commit to investigating the cases that we've presented in our report and also that Human Right Watch is presenting in its report about Yemen. You know, the United States faces real threats in northwest Pakistan. It is very serious issues of danger, not only to the United States but also to the people who live in north Pakistan. And the Pakistani government absolutely has human rights obligations to its people. But the way to address those threats is not through secrecy and impunity. The way to address them is by complying with international law.

  • 13:24:51

    SHAHPresident Obama has talked the talk, but, in fact, I think the U.S. government has acted like a reckless hit-and-run driver. It's committed these killings, it's killed a grandmother and it's never looked back and it's never acknowledged responsibility.

  • 13:25:04

    NNAMDIHere is Sarah in Gaithersburg, Md. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:25:09

    SARAHHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. My -- I just had a comment and I'll take the answer off the air. I just wanted to point out that it's virtually impossible for any leader to, you know, look at it as a case-by-case basis. It's unfortunate the grandmother and the little boy were injured but when you're looking at a global perspective, it is impossible to be accountable on a case-by-case -- excuse me, by a case-by-case basis. And I don't think it's a fair assessment of your guests to say that he's acting with impunity. Because he has to think of his country first.

  • 13:25:48

    NNAMDIWell, what makes you say it's impossible to acknowledge responsibility?

  • 13:25:54

    SARAHWell, I mean, I shouldn't say impossible but I think -- but under the circumstances that any world leader faced with this kind of situation, you can't just, you know, look at it as an individual, you know, look. You have to look at the big picture is what I'm trying to say. And I'm sure -- I'm almost positive that they are acting with a little bit of, you know, restraint. I mean, nobody's going to go out there and just bomb wantonly. I know there's rules that are, you know, followed. And just to imply that the United States is acting with impunity I think is not a fair assessment.

  • 13:26:35

    NNAMDINaureen Shah, what do you say if one were to interpret Sarah's remarks to mean that, look there are in fact accidental consequences of war? There is something called collateral damage. It certainly does happen when armies confront each other where civilians are located. What's the distinction between responsibility for those so-called incidents of collateral damage and those caused by drones?

  • 13:27:04

    SHAHWe're asking the U.S. government to do the same thing that we asked the U.S. government to do in Afghanistan, that we asked it to do in Iraq, and that it sometimes has done. And that the U.S. military has done sometimes. We're talking about the CIA conducting drone strikes with no accountability to the public, not just in these two cases, but in any of the cases. These are two cases we were able to document in very full detail. But the U.S. government has to answer for what's happening across the board.

  • 13:27:29

    SHAHIt's not our position that all drone strikes are illegal or unlawful. But the U.S. government can't act as though it gets a free pass on questions of international law just because it's President Obama and just because he's asking us to trust him.

  • 13:27:42

    NNAMDIFinally we go to Tom in Silver Spring, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:27:48

    TOMYes, hi, Kojo. I am a great admirer of your show. Listen to it almost every day.

  • 13:27:52

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:27:53

    TOMI just -- if the Amnesty International report that just came out that we've been discussing has made clear what one has been suspecting from anecdotal evidence increasingly over the last couple of years or so, that oftentimes the people operating our drones in that area will pull the trigger on the basis of very shabby intelligence. And this is not just collateral damage. I mean, this is just sloppy work. And then the person who's sitting in their air-conditioned office (word?) Nevada or New Mexico or wherever they were operating the drone from, goes home and sleeps the sleep of a blessed after having, for all he or she knows, blown away a van full of a wedding party that was on its way to the next village.

  • 13:28:50

    NNAMDIWhat do you think needs to be done, Tom?

  • 13:28:51

    TOMAnd we don't know the frequency with which this has happened. One hopes it isn't too frequent. But if it -- that it's happening at all, at the very least I don't know if it's unintentional but it rises to the level of a war crime. But it certainly besmirches the honor of our security forces and the integrity of our security forces. And I guess my question is, I mean, what's being done to verify the intelligence on the basis of which these guys running the drones pull the trigger on somebody?

  • 13:29:28

    NNAMDIWell, Amnesty International I know is not in the business of verifying intelligence. They are, however, in the business of verifying whether these incidents have occurred and whether atrocities of some form or another or illegal killings have been committed. And it has become convinced that that has indeed been the case.

  • 13:29:46

    SHAHYou know, one type of strike that we've seen is what we call follow-up strike. It's where the U.S. government conducts an initial strike. And then about ten minutes later as people -- communities are rushing in -- members really who are civilians are rushing in with stretchers, to provide medical assistance, to recover the wounded, the U.S. government will wait ten minutes, do a second strike.

  • 13:30:06

    SHAHAnd these rescuer strikes raise grave concerns under international law. Because the U.S. government should know or perhaps does know that the people coming in are not people who are directly participating in hostilities or posing an immediate threat to the United States. They're really trying to recover the bodies. And these are the cases that we say raise questions about war crimes and extrajudicial executions.

  • 13:30:28

    SHAHNow I don't want to besmirch, you know, the honor and the caution that people who are drone operators take. And, in fact, we know from some studies that U.S. Air Force drone operators actually take on quite a lot of stress and have post traumatic stress disorder problems. And it is a very serious concern for everyone involved. No one wants to be involved in an illegal program. And I don't think anyone in the U.S. government is hoping that, you know, we all just ignore that civilians are being killed.

  • 13:30:57

    SHAHI think what's clear here is that President Obama has made pledges to have a humane program. He said that he doesn't want us to do drone strikes unless there's a nurse or MT, that no civilians will be killed. But the reason why we need openness and transparency is because on the one hand are his words about no civilians being killed. And on the other hand are these cases like rescuer attacks where we know civilians have been killed.

  • 13:31:19

    NNAMDIAnd so we await the results of the meeting tomorrow between President Obama and Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Naureen Shah is an advocacy advisor at Amnesty International USA. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:30

    SHAHThanks for having me.

  • 13:31:31

    NNAMDIFarahnaz Ispahani is a Pakistani politician, currently a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. Farahnaz Ispahani, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:41

    ISPAHANIThank you, Kojo. But last word.

  • 13:31:43

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:31:44

    ISPAHANIThere's a huge concern that the Taliban and al-Qaida are using civilians as human shields in that area. That hasn't been discussed and that is important to know.

  • 13:31:54

    NNAMDIThank you very much for raising that issue. We'll certainly bring it up in the next conversation we have about this. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, what entrepreneurs and officials are doing to make this area more attractive as a start-up hub. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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