Last week, the New York Times reported that, more than two months after President Obama signalled a sharp shift in America’s’ targeted-killing operations’, there were more drone strikes in Pakistan last month than in any month since January.
Three missile strikes were carried out in Yemen in the last week alone. And after Secretary of State John Kerry told Pakistanis on Thursday that the United States was winding down the drone wars there, officials back in Washington quickly contradicted him.
The report came a day after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published news of a field investigation in Pakistan’s tribal areas which ‘appears to confirm’ that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year briefly revived the controversial tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike.
‘Double-tap’ strikes – the drone returns to fire on rescuers
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism first broke the story of the CIA’s deliberate targeting of rescuers in a February 2012 investigation for the Sunday Times. It found evidence of 11 attacks on rescuers – so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes – in Pakistan’s tribal areas between 2009 and 2011, along with a drone strike deliberately targeting a funeral, causing mass casualties.
The threat of the “double tap” reportedly deters the spontaneous humanitarian instinct of neighbours, bystanders and professional humanitarian workers providing emergency medical relief to the wounded.
It was the presence of civilians amid groups of rescuers which meant the US may have committed war crimes, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Christof Heyns noted in June 2012: “If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime”.
Heyns’ colleague Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on torture, also told reporters in October 2012: ‘The Bureau has alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.
The Bureau understands that Emmerson’s ongoing UN investigation into drone strikes is likely to engage with the issue of targeting first responders.