Did the U.S. drone strike and secretly compensate Yemeni civilians?

New documentary evidence has emerged indicating that the families of those killed in a controversial December 2013 U.S. strike in Yemen received upwards of $1 million dollars in compensation for their losses.  The documents were obtained by Reprieve, an NGO at the forefront of efforts to promote accountability for U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, and were reported by the Washington Post last night.

The Washington Post report highlights precisely why evidence of compensation in this case is so significant:

“Kat Craig, a legal director for [Reprieve], said the records undermine U.S. claims ‘that the victims of this drone attack were anything other than civilians’ and said the size of the payouts suggest that the Yemeni government — among the poorest in the Middle East — is being reimbursed by the United States.

According to numerous NGO and journalist accounts published in the wake of the December 2013 strike, the U.S. hit families traveling in a wedding procession, and may have killed 12 civilians and wounded 15. Some government officials have disputed these claims, contending that all those killed were lawful military targets; other officials have indicated that the evidence is “inconclusive,” or that some civilians may have been killed.

[For earlier analysis of this particular strike at Just Security, see here, here, here, here, here & here]

Last night’s Washington Post article reports:

“The documents also contain other details, including the identities of those killed or wounded in the Dec. 12 operation by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Among them were a father and son with identification cards listing them as associates of a Yemeni organization working to curb Islamist militancy.

The father survived the strike, but his 29-year-old son was killed.”

If that information is accurate, it would be the second alleged strike in Yemen in which the U.S. killed individuals working actively against al Qaeda. (On August 29, 2012, the U.S. allegedly killed Mr Salim bin Ali Jaber, an imam who had openly criticized al Qaeda).

The newly revealed documents would appear to be the written receipts of payments referred to in Gregory Johnsen’s recent Buzzfeed investigation into the strike, as well as in Human Rights Watch’s report on the strike, and in journalist Abubakr al-Shamahi’s account.  The documents evidence payments by Yemen, and do not on their face indicate U.S. involvement. Journalists Iona Craig and Adam Baron have also reported in detail on this strike (see here, here and here).

There is nothing especially newsworthy or contentious about the mere fact of a government offering money to civilian victims of government military action. This practice occurs regularly around the world (see this detailed 2013 report on international practice by the Center for Civilians in Conflict). If a government is responsible for a violation of international humanitarian law or human rights law, it is required to provide reparations to victims. And even if civilian deaths resulted from lawful government action, “solatia” or “condolence” payments are widely considered good practice. U.S. officials frequently state that they provide such payments in general, and there are numerous reports on the U.S. practice of such payments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, information about payments to drone strike victims is especially newsworthy, and the payment of such large sums in this case in particular raises crucial questions about the legality and accuracy of U.S. drone strikes, and about accountability for illegal or errant strikes. The U.S. has never acknowledged providing reparations or condolence payments for specific drone strikes in Yemen or Pakistan. The government has also refused to explain this “wedding convoy” strike on the record (just as it refuses to explain so many others).

The new evidence of payments returns us to the fundamental unanswered questions: Did the U.S. kill 12 Yemeni civilians on December 12, 2013? And is it secretly compensating victims of its drone strikes? 

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).