Italy’s responsibility in deadly US drone strike in Libya

Criminal complaint filed against Italian Commander of Naval Air Station Sigonella


Rome/Berlin – On 31 March 2022, the families of victims of a US drone strike in Libya on 29 November 2018 filed a criminal complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor at the Tribunal of Siracusa against the commander of Italian Naval Air Station Sigonella. The human rights organizations Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo (Italy)  Reprieve (UK), and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR, Germany) have joined the community in submitting this complaint. The complaint accuses the commander of the unlawful use of force under both international and Italian domestic law. The US airstrike near Ubari in Libya killed eleven innocent members of the Tuareg community and, according to our joint investigation, was carried out from Sigonella.

The Italian government has allowed the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) to use Sigonella for its so-called war on terror and ‘targeted-killing’ operations; therefore, the base plays a vital role in the US drone program in North Africa and the Sahel. The US presence and its operations at Sigonella, as well as the responsibilities of the Italian commander there, are regulated by the USA-Italy Technical Agreement of 2006. According to this agreement, the US is obligated to notify the Italian authorities of all significant US activities, excluding only routine operations.

“Clearly, a drone operation implying lethal force is not routine,” said Chantal Meloni, Legal Advisor at ECCHR. She added, “While AFRICOM is directly responsible, the Italian commander must have known about and approved the operation, and can therefore be criminally responsible as an accomplice for having allowed the unlawful lethal attack. This would be a violation of international law and the right to life.”

AFRICOM acknowledged the strike but claimed that those killed were members of al Qaeda, an accusation that the community categorically denies. Madogaz Musa Abdullah, one of the complainants, lost his brother Nasser in the strike. Nasser, along with the majority killed in the strike, were members of the national armed forces of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord.

Madogaz Abdullah said: “AFRICOM killed innocent people. They claimed that our sons were terrorists and ended their lives without any evidence. We want the Italian government to listen to us and to stop AFRICOM from killing our people. We call on both governments to apologize and for the Italian government to open a transparent investigation and to hold to account those responsible for authorizing the strike.”

Jennifer Gibson, who leads Reprieve’s work on lethal force, said: “Nearly four years have passed since these lives were ended without warning by a US drone launched from Italian soil. Fathers, sons and brothers have been ripped from this community in an instant, leaving nothing but enduring grief and unresolved questions. The families they left behind desperately need answers – and for someone to be held accountable for this senseless loss of life.”

This criminal complaint concerning Italy’s involvement in the US drone program is among the many legal interventions undertaken by ECCHR, Reprieve, and Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo to counter human rights violations committed by the US in the name of its so-called war on terror.

US drone warfare often violates international law and human rights – such as strict rules on the use of force and self-defense, principles and laws of warfare, and fundamental human rights – by attacking individuals whose status was not adequately verified beforehand.

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ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide. It was founded in 2007 by Wolfgang Kaleck and other international human rights lawyers to protect and enforce the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other human rights declarations and national constitutions, through legal means.

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