U.S. Response to Pakistani Drone Ruling
U.S. Response to Pakistani Drone Ruling

The presence of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, in the Middle East has been a highly contentious issue since the Bush administration, when they were first used for the killing of suspected terrorists. With the election of the Barack Obama, there was hope that he would end drone attacks, however, their prevalence has only increased. Among the most widely targeted countries of U.S. drone strikes is Pakistan, which has seen more than 300 such attacks since 2004. Estimates put the number of civilians killed by these attacks at 250-300 (NAF, 2013). Despite the number of civilian casualties, the drone war continues as a means of targeted killing of suspected terrorists.

Recently, however, a top Pakistani court ruled the drone strikes as illegal and a violation of human rights. The defendants claim that the strikes not only violate Pakistani state sovereignty, but disproportionately results in civilian casualties. After a drone strike in March 2011 left 17 civilians dead during a communal meeting, a case was filed by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal based charity in Islamabad (Smith, 2013). The court ruled that it us up to the Pakistani government to “ensure that no drone strikes take place in the future.” It follows that to do this, the government should file a case directly to the United Nations (Kopstein, 2013).

Court’s Decision

The Peshwar High Court found that the current drone strikes are “criminal offences.” Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan ordered the government to use force if necessary to see them ended. The judgment cited the need for the Pakistani government to protect the “right to life” of its citizens. The document also stressed the need for victims of drone strikes to come forward as part of launching their complaint to the United Nations (Ross, 2013). This decision is the first time a Pakistani court declared the illegality of drone warfare, which has been taking place in the country since 2004. Furthermore, the court stated that drone attacks cannot be considered even if Pakistani officials assented to them. The court urged the Pakistani secretariat for the tribal regions to release the drone casualty data it has (Ross, 2013).

Drone Strikes and US-Pakistan Relations

The decision of the Pakistani court was followed by a pronouncement by incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He has also called for an end to the attacks saying they were “a challenge” to Pakistan’s national sovereignty. Sharif’s party is currently on track to retain a majority after the elections on May 11th (Press TV, 2013). The statement by Mr. Sharif demonstrates that drones still remain a stumbling block in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

These relations were strained recently when Osama bin Laden was found to be living in Abbottabad, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. U.S. government files that were disclosed during Wikileaks showed that American officials were aware Pakistani security services were tipping off bin Laden to evade capture (Ross, 2011).

Presumptive Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif has stated that he believes relations with the U.S. are good, but that drones were “challenging our sovereignty.” (Associated Press, 2013). The U.S. currently maintains that drone attacks are necessary because of cross border attacks from militants in the tribal region of the country into neighboring Afghanistan. Politicians in Pakistan use the drone strikes to generate popular support for their party, while allowing for their continued existence in private. This is a result of the reliance of Pakistan on monetary aid from the U.S., as well as on bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund that also require U.S. support.

Under President Obama the drone program has launched 307 attacks, with 1,500 to 2,000 Pakistan militants killed in that time. Until Pakistan can secure its borders and crack down on militants operating within the country, the U.S. is unlikely to stop the drone program. Congress recently introduced legislation to enhance the oversight of such operations in foreign countries, but it is unclear when, if it all, the bill will pass. The introduction of complaints in the UN could be troublesome for U.S.-Pakistan relations. If the U.S. rejects the courts recommendations, then, according to the court, “the country should think about breaking diplomatic ties with the U.S.” (RT, 2013).


According to U.S. academics, the court’s decision puts more pressure on the U.S. to act transparently in its drone attacks in the future, including the amount of civilians killed. Even if the charges are overstated, such an allegation cannot go unanswered. The U.S. could potentially respond with an investigation and release information to the public about how the attacks are carried out. By publicly disclosing the legal basis for the use of drone attacks, the government can deflect many of the claims against it.

The repercussions of this case could be a tarnished international image abroad, at a time when the U.S. is attempting to improve its relations in the region. As long as the U.S. intends to continue using drone weapons in place of soldiers, it needs to be clear on its right to do so, justifying the deaths of Pakistani civilians while operating without public scrutiny.

Works Cited

Associated Press. (2013, May 12). Presumptive Pakistani pm says he wants good relations with  us but drones violate sovereignty.  Retrieved from  http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/strong-election-victory-could-make-it-easier-for-sharif-to-tackle-pakistans-problems/2013/05/12/e71e9134-bb80-11e2-b537-ab47f0325f7c_story.html

Kopstein, J. (2013, May 13). Us drone strikes condemned as illegal by Pakistan’s highest court.  Retrieved from http://www.theverge.com/2013/5/13/4325344/pakistan-court-rules-us-drone-strikes-are-illegal

New America Foundation. (2013, May 15). The year of the drone. Retrieved from  http://counterterrorism.newamerica.net/drones

Ross, A. (2013, May 09). Pakistani court rules CIA drone strikes are illegal. Retrieved from  http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2013/05/09/pakistani-court-rules-cia-drone-strikes-are-illegal-and-war-crimes/

Ross, T. (2011, May 02). Wikileaks: Osama bin laden ‘protected’ by Pakistani security. The Telegraph.  Retrieved  from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/8488236/WikiLeaks-Osama-bin-Laden-protected-by-Pakistani-security.html

RT. (2013, May 10). Us drone strikes illegal, govt should stop them – Pakistani court. Retrieved  from http://rt.com/news/pakistan-us-drone-illegal-093/

Smith, C. (2013, May 12). Will Pakistan finally stand up against illegal us drone attacks?.  The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/12/pakistan-us-drone-strikes

* March against drones in Pakistan:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/16901703@N06/5311762933/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Leave a Reply

nine − 5 =