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U.N. experts urge U.S., Yemen to explain erroneous drone strikes

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights experts told the United States and Yemen on Thursday to say whether they were complicit in drone attacks that mistakenly killed civilians in wedding processions this month.

The independent experts questioned the legitimacy of drone attacks under international law and said the governments should reveal what targeting procedures were used.

Local security officials said on December 12 that 15 people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed in an air strike after their party was mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy. The officials did not identify the plane in the strike in central al-Bayda province, but tribal and local media sources said that it was a drone.

Stressing the need for accountability and payment to victims' families, the U.N. statement issued in Geneva said that two attacks, on two separate wedding processions, killed 16 and wounded at least 10 people.

"If armed drones are to be used, states must adhere to international humanitarian law, and should disclose the legal basis for their operational responsibility and criteria for targeting," said Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The United States has stepped up drone strikes as part of a campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), regarded by Washington as the most active wing of the militant network. Yemen, AQAP's main stronghold, is among a handful of countries where the United States acknowledges using drones, although it does not comment on the practice.

Heyns urged Yemen and the United States to disclose whether they were responsible, and if so, what targeting standards were used, how many civilians were killed, and whether they plan to provide compensation for the victims' families.

"Yemen cannot consent to violations of the right to life of people in its territory," he added.

Juan Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, voiced concern about the legitimacy of the airstrikes. Each state was obliged to undertake due investigation into the reported incidents, including their effect on civilians, he said.

"A deadly attack on illegitimate targets amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if, as in this case, it results in serious physical or mental pain and suffering for the innocent victims," Mendez said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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