Just two days before national elections will be held in Pakistan, a Peshawar High Court judge ruled that U.S. drone strikes in the country are "criminal offences" and constitute a "war crime."
The ruling, given on Thursday, comes as Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman who has a enjoyed a late surge in support, recently renewed his vow to shoot down U.S. drones if elected as prime minister. Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan's scathing verdict is "the first major Pakistani court ruling on the legality of the CIA’s drone campaign in the country."
Justice Khan ordered the Pakistani government to "forcefully" convey its opposition to the attacks to the U.S. government and "use force if need be" to end them.
The ruling marks a further sign that opposition to the CIA's drone war is growing in Pakistan and will hopefully increase pressure on the Pakstani government, the U.S. government, and international organizations like the UN to take action to end the destructive and immoral extrajudicial killings.
Thursday's verdict comes in response to a case filed against the CIA last year by the legal charity the Foundation for Fundamental Rights on behalf of Noor Khan, whose father was amongst dozen s of civilians killed in a U.S. drone attack on a group of tribal elders on March 17 2011. In his ruling, Justice Khan ordered the Pakistani government to:
"...convey forcefully to the US in clear terms that no further drone strikes will be tolerated on its sovereign territory...to protect the 'right to life' of its citizens and use force if need be to stop extrajudicial killings with drones...to provide redress for the criminal offences committed by those involved inside and outside Pakistan in drone operations...[to] demand the adoption [in the United Nations Security Council] of a resolution condemning drone strikes and requiring the US to stop the strikes in Pakistan [to] gather DATA of victims of drone strikes and encourage any such victims to come forth for the wrong done to them [and to] request to the UN Secretary General to constitute an independent War Crime Tribunal which shall have the mandate to investigate & enquire into all these matters..."
Pointing out that the majority of drone strikes in Pakistan are "signature strikes," Justice said that these strikes are not:
"...proportionate under the Geneva Conventions and thus, is illegal under International Law. The forming of an opinion by the CIA that these strikes target groups of men, who are militants having links with terrorist groups, is based on figment of imagination and till date no tangible, reliable & convincing proof has been furnished to that effect by the U.S Authorities including CIA."
Both the Pakistani government and the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson have also previously condemned the strikes as being against international law and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.
At present the only systematically collected and released data on drone strikes in Pakistan comes from independent organizations such as the Bureau of Investigate Journalism. Justice Khan also demanded that the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) Secretariat release any data on casualties from drone strikes that it currently holds. According to the Bureau, since 2004 the U.S. drone war in Pakistan has killed a total between 2,500 and 3,500 people, including between 500 and 1,000 civilians and children. Many more have been injured.
Addressing the claim that Pakistan may have secretly consented to the strikes under former leader Pervez Musharaf, Justice Khan said that they are illegal regardless of whether the government may have consented to them or not. According to the Bureau, after the election Pakistan's "new government will have to decide between implementing the court’s orders or appealing to the Supreme Court."
It remains to be seen how the new Pakistani government will react to the ruling and whether it can be translated into meaningful action. However, historic decisions like this will lead to increased attention on the CIA's drone war and its devastating effects. And this can only be a good thing.