Protest rally against U.S. drone strikes in central Pakistan's Multan in January 2013. At least eight people were killed and four others injured in two separate U.S. drone strikes. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)
On the morning of March 17, 2011, dozens of Pakistani tribal elders were meeting to settle a local mining dispute in remote North Waziristan. The site was a bus terminal they believed would be safe from the deadly drones that buzzed overhead in pursuit of local al Qaeda militants.
But before noon 50 of them were dead, smashed to pieces by a bevy of Hellfire missiles. It was a case that outraged Pakistanis and raised resentment of Washington to new heights.
This week the drones came home to roost in the Peshawar High Court, where Chief Justice Dost Mohammed declared the U.S. guilty of war crimes for its strikes on the tribal areas, and ruled that the attacks were a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty and international law.
It will be one of the first political tests for Pakistan’s newly-victorious former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League in weekend elections that also saw the rise of fierce drone opponent Imran Khan and his Movement of Justice party.
The judge ordered the Pakistani government to take “immediate action” to stop future attacks, as well as call for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council or General Assembly -- and compensation for the survivors and families of the victims of the bus station attack.
Shahzad Akbar, the families’ lawyer, said it was a “landmark judgment,” predicting that they would at last get justice. And he pointed out that Pakistan’s new government would run the risk of contempt of court if it failed to follow through.
In the melee of a violent election, which has left more than 100 dead in Taliban bombings, the judgment has had little coverage, in spite of campaigning by London-based Reprieve and Akbar’s Foundation for Fundamental Rights.
Is Washington listening?
“Since 2006, various Pakistani officials have said exactly this and the United States has conducted over 340 drone strikes,” says Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, a critic of U.S. drone policy. “So I do not expect anything new to come of this latest ruling from the bench.”
The UN’s British special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, supported calls for Washington to halt the drone attacks, which he said are not sanctioned by Pakistan and have caused major damage to the tribal area. Former U.S. State Department official Harold Koh issued a strong rebuke of the Obama administration’s “persistent lack of transparency” about its clandestine killing program.
But until now, Pakistan – which is in dire financial straits and gets most of its aid from the U.S – has not moved to break off relations or take the case to the International Criminal Court. Washington’s 2013 budget request for Pakistan is for $2.4 billion in counter insurgency and development aid. But it is tied to Islamabad’s “co-operation in counter terrorism efforts” against foreign and domestic militants.
With Sharif -- who has promised to halt drone strikes -- in power, serious challenges lie ahead for the new government. All the more so if Khan holds a balance of power.
The strikes, Khan told the Star’s Michelle Shephard, are only “creating anti-Americanism. It is helping the militants to recruit people. Collateral damage means anyone losing a family (member) goes and joins the militants.”
After this election the voices that back his view will only grow louder.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to South Asia, winning national and international awards.