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What recourse do Pakistan's 'civilian drone victims' have?

In Pakistan's tribal belt, locals have no access to police stations, Pakistani courts, or the International Court of Justice to report being wrongly targeted by drones.

By Correspondent / November 2, 2012

American citizens, hold a banner during a peace march organized by Pakistan's cricket star turned politician Imran Khan's party, not pictured, in Tank, Pakistan, Oct. 7. The Pakistani military blocked a convoy carrying thousands of Pakistanis and a small contingent of US anti-war activists from entering a lawless tribal region along the border with Afghanistan on Oct. 7 to protest American drone strikes.

Mohammad Hussain/AP/File

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Islamabad, Pakistan

In 2010, after three US Hellfire missiles killed his brother and his 18-year-old son, Karim Khan approached a Pakistani lawyer to help him.

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Mr. Khan’s son Zainullah Khan and his brother Asif Iqbal both worked at schools in the region. Zainullah worked as a guard at a girls' school, and Asif worked as an English teacher in an area where both girls’ schools and schools that teach English are vulnerable to attacks by militants. Khan told the lawyer that both had chosen their jobs because they believed in the importance of education for girls.

“Karim called his son and brother ‘civilian targets,’ ” says Shehzad Akbar, the Pakistani lawyer attempting to take Khan’s case, along with 82 other families who claim to be victims of drone attacks, to Islamabad.

It’s a difficult task, made more difficult because the more than 3 million residents in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have no access to legal recourse.

“Tribal areas are officially a part of Pakistan – and their residents are formally citizens of this country. But they have no access to Pakistani or international courts, and therefore no legal redress for losses incurred because of US-led drone strikes,” says Mr. Akbar.

Allegations of large numbers of civilian deaths have haunted the drone effort in Pakistan since its inception under President George W. Bush. Under the Obama administration, drone strikes have been at the core of the US strategy aimed at rooting out the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Pakistan's tribal areas, where militants have taken refuge to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

According to a report by Stanford, New York, and Columbia universities, the best available information from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests that of the 2,500 to 3,000 people who have been killed since the first known drone strike in June 2004, anywhere between 450 and 881 were civilians, and another 1,300 people were injured. Those numbers are considered controversial because they rely on media accounts that often depend on the Pakistani government for information (reporters are not allowed free access to the tribal areas).

But Akbar holds up the 82 families hailing from North Waziristan as examples of the numerous nonmilitants who have lost their lives in drone operations – even as the Obama administration claims that the numbers are much lower and that civilian drone deaths have been rare since 2010.

The legal options

According to Akbar, civilians who claim to be victims of drone attacks have two options: either they can file charges against the CIA and the US government, or they can bring a case to the Pakistani authorities.

If it becomes provable that the US and Pakistan are not collaborating on the strikes, the general consensus in international law would be that US drone strikes are illegal, since there are "no UN resolutions, and the Americans have not declared war," says Akbar, regarding the first option.

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