First Drone Strike Victims Planning to Visit US: Will the US Keep Its Transparency Promises?

Next week – for the first time in the history of the US “targeted killing” drone program – alleged survivors of a drone strike and the family members of a deceased victim are planning to visit the US to speak directly to US officials and to the American public.  Today, various outlets reported that the visit may be derailed because of the difficulties the lawyer for the family is facing in obtaining a visa to the US.

The cancellation of the visit would be a missed opportunity for US officials to make good on the many promises made earlier this year about providing meaningful transparency on drone strikes.

The planned visit comes during a month of activity likely to refocus attention on the US targeted killing program, and particularly on the program’s deeply concerning lack of transparency and accountability.  Other efforts include today’s launch of TBIJ’s valuable ‘Naming the Dead’ project, forthcoming major NGO reports on individual strikes, a judicial hearing in one of the ACLU’s targeted killing Freedom of Information Act cases, and two UN reports which will be presented and debated at the UN General Assembly in late October.

Rafiq ur Rehman, from North Waziristan, is among those hoping to travel to the US with his lawyer.  Mr. Rehman states that his mother, Bibi Mamana, was killed and that a number of children suffered injuries in an October 23, 2012 strike that was also reported to have killed alleged “militants.”  The strike, and subsequent advocacy the family carried out, has been covered in detail by some foreign news outlets, although, as is far too often the case, it received little mainstream attention in the US.   

Like many other alleged victims of US strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, Mr. Rehman and his family have been making basic and understandable requests.  They ask for an acknowledgment of their loss, and for the US government to explain what happened.

Since the strike that allegedly killed Mr. Rehman’s mother, Obama has delivered a major speech on targeted killings and drones, and officials have stated that the US does “not fire” if there would be collateral harm.  Many US officials have pledged more transparency about the program, and have specifically said that the US should acknowledge any civilian deaths.  Despite these promises, we are yet to see real change to the program’s long-criticized legal, factual, and process secrecy. (Later this week, I will post on the specifics of the program’s secrecy, and assess transparency changes since the President’s May 2013 speech).

In light of Mr. Rehman’s desire to visit the US and to testify about his case, the US government now faces a stark choice.

US officials can publicly respond in some of the unproductive ways they have often done in the past – ignore the specific reports and allegations put before them; refuse to comment publicly; issue broad statements about limited civilian casualties and restrictive targeting policies; or make largely beside the point assertions about drone precision.

Alternatively, the Administration can choose to make good on its promises, and begin to match its practice to its rhetoric.  The government can announce concrete steps it will take to promote meaningful transparency and accountability in Mr. Rehman’s case and others like it.  As evidence of a real commitment to transparency, the US could start with two minimal steps: (a) seek an interview with Mr. Rehman, his family, and their attorney, requesting witness and documentary evidence in support of their claims, and (b) publicly state who the government believes was killed and injured in the strike, including addressing whether Mrs. Mamana was killed, and if so, whether she was, for example, targeted as an imminent threat, or whether she was mistakenly killed or considered lawful collateral damage.

Through these initial basic steps, the US government can demonstrate that its many transparency promises earlier this year were not mere rhetoric, but were genuinely the start of long-overdue and actual reform. 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).