I do think it’s important and worthwhile that Amnesty International are doing work like this, and it’s much better that they release this kind of report than not.
But on a first and partial reading, I do also think that it offers yet more evidence of how Amnesty tend to go softer on the alleged Crimes of the Official Good Guys than they do on the alleged Crimes of the Official Bad Guys.
Take this passage, for example (emphasis mine):
‘Because the US government refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out, Amnesty International is unable to reach firm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi and on the 18 laborers took place, and therefore their status under international law. However, based on its review of incidents over the last two years, Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.
The prevailing secrecy surrounding drone strikes, restrictions on access to drone-affected areas, and the refusal of the US administration to explain the international legal basis for individual attacks raise concerns that other strikes in the Tribal Areas may have also violated human rights’.
See all the qualifiers they put in so that there is no conclusive designation of these drone strikes as war crimes, and their perpetrators as war criminals? It’s all ‘unable to reach firm conclusions’, ‘seriously concerned’ and ‘may’.
And yet, in the very next paragraph, in regards to the military actions of what they describe as ‘armed groups’, they write that:
‘Armed groups operating in North Waziristan have been responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses constituting war crimes and other crimes under international law in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere’.
Notice the complete lack of qualifiers here, the complete lack of ‘concern’ about access to the affected areas, and ‘secrecy’ on the part of the perpetrators – even though they surely apply just as much as they do to U.S. drone strikes, given that the alleged attacks took place in the same areas, and that the groups responsible likely aren’t having an open and honest dialogue with Amnesty.
But unlike the Obama administration, these ‘armed groups’ have ‘been responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses constituting war crimes and other crimes under international law’, period. No ifs, buts or maybes. They are guilty, and that’s that.
I do see this pattern repeated quite often in Amnesty’s work.
Perhaps one reason for it, as I have touched on previously, is that there is actually some cross-over between Amnesty as an organisation and e.g. the U.S. State Department. Even if this doesn’t lead to deliberate bias, it’s possible that people within this organisation share some of the same ideological assumptions about the essentially benign nature of Western state power as do some of the people running those states.
Another is that an entity as powerful as the U.S. government would be able to come back and hurt Amnesty if they decided they really wanted to. When members of the U.S. government speak, leak and smear, people listen. They have to be extra cautious to try and avoid being flacked to death, or having any mistakes exposed and publicised.
The ‘armed groups’ operating in Pakistan have no such international power, and no-one really cares what they say. So in investigating their alleged Crimes, the caution goes out of the window, because they can’t really come back and hurt or discredit Amnesty.
The same is likely true for other Bad Guy states or non-state actors that they investigate.
From page 14 of the report, on drone attacks circa 2004-2011:
‘Some drone attacks during this period, which reportedly resulted in heavy civilian casualties, may have violated international human rights law or, where applicable, international humanitarian law. These include the killing of at least 82 people, many of them children as young as six, in a madrassa on 30 October 2006 near the border with Afghanistan in Bajaur tribal agency (to date, the deadliest single attack by a US drone in Pakistan) . . . Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these strikes may have resulted in unlawful killings, constituting extrajudicial executions or war crimes’.
I do find it hard to believe that if, say, the Syrian Air Force had bombed a religious school in neighbouring Turkey (who are openly supporting ‘armed groups’ carrying out attacks inside Syria), killing 82 people in the process, many of them children, Amnesty would be talking about their ‘concerns’ that this ‘may’ have been a Crime.
And I can’t even begin to imagine what their reaction would be if British and American children were killed at school in such an attack, perhaps during a visit by military recruiters i.e. ‘armed groups’ or ‘militants’. But I bet it wouldn’t be anywhere near as anodyne.
But when the Official Bad Guys attack schools . . .
This, just three paragraphs down from the paragraph quoted above, and on the same page:
‘Armed groups based in North Waziristan are responsible for indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on military forces and the general public that have killed and injured thousands of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last decade, some of which constitute war crimes. They have regularly carried out suicide and IED (improvised explosive device) bombings, targeting marketplaces, mosques, schools, and other populated places that either indiscriminately or deliberately caused scores of civilian deaths’.
They are unambiguously responsible for ‘indiscriminate attacks’ that constitute ‘war crimes’, and have ‘indiscriminately or deliberately caused scores of civilian deaths’. Again, no ifs, buts or maybes. No doubt or nuance.
There is simply no getting away from the fact, the further into the report I read, that the language they use in regards to the actions of the ‘armed groups’, and the conclusions they draw about them, is far harsher than the language they use in regards to the actions of the Obama administration, and the conclusions they draw about them.
(I might also add that, unlike the ‘armed groups’, the Obama administration are lucky enough to get a few paragraphs contextualising their attacks, e.g. North Waziristan is described as ‘a refuge for militants, as well as a training ground and base for attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan’, and a ‘staging ground for armed groups planning attacks on the USA, Europe and other international targets’ – see page 12).