Image of vehicle reportedly hit by a drone strike in Mareb (via Facebook – Ali Bakhiti)

While United States leaders lecture Russian President Vladimir Putin on respecting sovereignty and international law by not waging a war of aggression on Ukraine, the sovereignty of Yemen continues to be undermined by US drone strikes.

Reportedly, at least one drone strike, the first in over a month, occurred in Yemen early in the morning on March 3 or in the night on March 2. It killed three people, including an alleged al Qaeda fighter.

The three were killed in and around a vehicle in the eastern province of Mareb.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) summarized stories on the strike from Yemeni news media.

…Tribal sources told Aden al-Ghad that the drone strike ‘targeted the vehicle of a young fighter named Jaber Saleh Al-Shebwani. The missile turned the vehicle into rubble and killed Shebwani as well as two of his companions.”

The paper quoted a military source as confirming the strike: ‘A drone had targeted a vehicle carrying members of al Qaeda in the town of Shebwan and had killed three members, amongst them is believed to be a prominent Al-Qaeda leader.’ The source reported that US drone operations had escalated in recent weeks in Marib province.

Shebwani was also reported killed by other news outlets. Quoting local sources, Andolu News Agency suggested Shebwani was sleeping by his car when the drone allegedly struck. ‘The fighter Jaber Al-Shabwani of the Al Shabwan tribe was sleeping near his vehicle in an open area before the drone launched a missile that hit his vehicle and killed him immediately,’ the sources said…

It is unlikely that the world will ever know the names of the other two. If one of the three killed was really an al Qaeda fighter, the mere association with this figure will be enough for most organizations to accept it was legitimate for the US to kill them.

This latest strike comes as Ben Emmerson, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, has released a report after a year spent investigating drone strikes. The report, the second from his investigation, highlights over 30 different drone attacks that occurred between 2006 and 2013 when civilian deaths likely occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Gaza and Yemen.

“In any case in which there have been, or appear to have been, civilian casualties that were not anticipated when the attack was planned,” Emmerson wrote, “the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation of the results.”

The report indicated that a “significant number of reported civilian casualties” had surfaced in the “final weeks of 2013.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) had alleged “since 2009 the United States has conducted at least 86 lethal counter-terrorism operations, using remotely piloted aircraft and other means, killing up to 500 people.” Most were individuals with a “continuous combat function” in “Yemen’s internal armed conflicts,” which would make them “legitimate military targets under the principles of international humanitarian law.” But anywhere from 24 to 71 civilians had been alleged to have been killed in drone strikes from 2009 to 2013.

One of the strikes was an attack on a wedding procession in Yemen on December 12, 2013. A 28-page report from HRW described what witnesses and relatives of those injured and killed said had happened.

Four Hellfire missiles struck a “convoy of 11 cars and pickup trucks.” The missiles killed “at least 12 men and wounded at least 15 others, six of them seriously.” Witnesses and relatives said “everyone in the procession was a civilian,” and not terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.

A driver of one of the vehicles in the procession recounted what had happened in one of the worst drone attacks in Yemen’s history.

Eleven cars, sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks were in the procession, and the mood among the 50 to 60 travelers was festive, said Abdullah Muhammad al-Tisi, a local sheikh and who was driving one of the vehicles. According to al-Tisi, the gaiety continued even as the recognizable buzz of a remotely piloted drone persisted overhead. “Everyone was happy; everyone was celebrating the wedding,” he said. “Then the strike turned happiness to grief.”

Halfway through the journey, as the procession paused to await a car that had a flat tire, the drone’s volume increased, al-Tisi said. Soon after, at 4:30 p.m., the missiles struck in quick succession. One missile hit the fourth vehicle in the procession, a 2005 Toyota Hilux pickup truck, but not before three or four men inside the pickup had jumped out and fled, apparently alerted by the drone’s increased buzz, he said. Three other missiles hit near the car that was struck, sending shrapnel through four nearby vehicles and killing and wounding passengers inside them.

Emmerson noted in his report that the working group of the National Dialogue Conference had “demanded” that drone operations cease. The Yemeni House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution on December 14, 2013, two days after the strike that hit the wedding procession, which called for a ban on armed drones in Yemen. It also insisted that the war on terrorism “should not harm civilians and should be based on human rights standards.”

Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who has proudly defended US drone strikes, has said in the past that he approves every US strike. But HRW met with Hadi on January 28, 2014, and in that meeting he apparently said that strikes are “‘generally permitted’ pursuant to an agreement that then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed with the United States after the 9/11 attacks, to which President Hadi said he is bound.”

Significantly, HRW reported from its investigation of the attack on the wedding procession:

…A Yemeni government official, as well as a senior Yemeni government official under Saleh, told Human Rights Watch they were unaware of any signed agreement between Yemen and the United States on drone strikes. “There is a gentlemen’s agreement,” the current official said.

A third Yemeni official said that, “There is coordination between the Yemeni and the US governments, but we don’t really know how things are processed on the American side. This is an area that has to be addressed.”…

As the world knows because WikiLeaks published a US State Embassy cable that was provided by Chelsea Manning, in early January 2010 Saleh and then-CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus had a meeting. Saleh assured Petraeus the Yemen government would continue to say “the bombs are ours, not yours.” The Yemen government would cover up attacks to help the US keep them secret. And, though Saleh expressed concern about the inaccuracy of the missiles and the number of civilians killed, this would enable the US to avoid scrutiny and accountability for its counterterrorism operations.

Perhaps, this was when the “gentleman’s agreement” was solidified.

Hadi disclosed to HRW that a “joint operations room,” which includes the US, the United Kingdom, Yemen, and NATO “identifies in advance” individuals, who will be targeted.

In other words, it is not just a US-Yemen partnership redefining the parameters of international law through drone attacks. NATO and the UK are part of operations too.

The Special Rapporteur called on the US and other countries involved to disclose any “results of any fact-finding inquiries into the alleged incidents listed”  or explain “why no such inquiries” were made. He called on the US and other countries involved to “provide as much information as possible in connection” with the strikes.

Providing such information would require the official acknowledgment of certain strikes, which the UN Special Rapporteur may not keep secret. The US government position is not to confirm or deny any strikes because, even though strikes from the military can be confirmed, process of elimination could lead people to determine which strikes were by the CIA and which strikes were not.

President Barack Obama’s administration is engaged in secrecy games in the courts in order to continue to withhold details on the legal basis and criteria for carrying out so-called targeted killing operations. So long as the administration insists on concealing interpretations of law to ensure drone strikes can occur without any scrutiny or accountability, the UN Special Rapporteur is unlikely to get much cooperation.