When Will the US Government Commit to Investigating Unlawful Drone Strike Deaths?

[Editor’s Note: The post below is part of an exchange between Naureen Shah and Chris Jenks on the recently released reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the US drone program.  Don’t miss Chris’ post that was also published on 10/22.]

Although US officials now admit that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have caused civilian casualties—they are “exceedingly rare” according to CIA director John Brennan—the Obama Administration has never publicly committed to investigating these cases and reporting violations of the law.

New evidence of potentially unlawful deaths presented today in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch should add significant pressure on the Obama Administration to change course. Along with UN expert Ben Emmerson’s interim report published last week (summarized here by Sarah Knuckey), these reports highlight the disconnect between the Obama administration rhetoric about “precise” killings and its silence about who exactly has been killed.

New Evidence of Potentially Unlawful Deaths

For years, journalists and human rights groups have presented evidence of potentially unlawful deaths from US drone strikes. There are roughly two categories of this documentation: detailed field investigations into particular strikes, such as a 2010 report by Center for Civilians in Conflict and a 2012 Associated Press investigation; and overall death counts based on aggregation of news reports about particular strikes.

Amnesty International’s new report is an example of the former, and provides some of the most detailed research about individual drone strikes ever completed. Amnesty International examined the reported 45 US drone strikes in North Waziristan between January 2012 and July 2013 and carried out detailed field research into nine strikes, including over 60 interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, residents and officials that were corroborated against satellite imagery, along with video, photographic and audio evidence obtained from drone strike locations.

Two cases are highlighted in Amnesty International’s report. One involves the killing of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi in Ghundi Kala village on October 24, 2012. She was struck by a drone-launched missile and killed instantly while picking vegetables in the family fields. Some of her grandchildren, who had been playing nearby, were injured in the strike.

The second strike took place in Zowi Zidgi village on July 6, 2012. A group of labourers had gathered in a tent to drink tea after a day’s work, when they were struck by a barrage of missiles – a few minutes later a so-called “rescuer strike” targeted others who had run to the site to search for survivors. At least 18 people were killed in total, including 14-year old boy Saleh Khan. Amnesty International has found no evidence whatsoever that those killed were involved in fighting or posed a threat to life.

To be sure, qualitative assessments of particular strikes, like Amnesty International’s, do not establish an overall pattern of legal violations by the US government. They nevertheless underscore what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called an “accountability vacuum”: aided by the remote and lawless nature of the regions where drone strikes occur, the US government has maintained extreme secrecy about who it is killing. As a legal and moral matter, the onus is on the U.S. government to establish the legality of killings documented in Amnesty’s report, and of all other drone killings.

Why Investigations Are Crucial to Real Drone Reform

Investigations are an important step toward providing remedies and compensation to victims and survivors of strikes, where appropriate. Moreover, in policy terms, investigations are crucial to achieving lasting drone reform.

In May 2013, President Obama for the first time addressed drone strikes at length in a speech at NDU. The Administration issued a fact sheet on describing “policy standards” governing U.S. use of lethal force that were already in place or would be transitioned into place over time. The Administration also leaked that drone strikes in Pakistan would move from the control of the CIA to the Department of Defense (DoD), and many hoped that move would lead to further disclosures about governing law and procedures.

Nearly half a year later, the White House has not officially released any new information on drone strikes, or specifically addressed reports of civilian deaths (though leaks still abound). Unfortunately, the government’s limited disclosures threaten to stem legitimate congressional and public scrutiny without ensuring meaningful reform.

In effect, the Obama administration has sought to evade accountability for past abuses by promising that its policies have already improved. This “trust us” approach of the Obama administration—so evident in its response to the NSA surveillance scandal—manifests too in the drone program, with the added gravity of life and death.

Investigations would break the “trust us” paradigm. They would force a reckoning with past and potentially ongoing abuses. On the other hand, continued secrecy—even assuming the Administration has made adequate behind-closed-doors reform—would give the government free rein to revert to past abusive practices whenever it is faced with circumstances it deems exceptional, without informing the public of the regression.

Determining Who Is Killed

U.S. officials have described conducting limited assessments of who is killed from strikes, but these are insufficient. According to reports, these assessments are based primarily on drone video and information provided by paid informants and local government sources. Such assessments may miss civilian casualties, and wrongfully confirm U.S. officials’ belief in the near infallibility of drone targeting processes.

A recent study on drone strike deaths in Afghanistan suggests battle damage assessments based on drone video missed civilian casualties. It also concludes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, strikes by drone were approximately ten times more likely to cause casualties than strikes by manned aircraft.

In the past, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity have dismissed reports of civilian casualties, claiming they “unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.” It is true that misinformation and politically driven propaganda about drone strike deaths is abundant, making it especially difficult for observers to determine the veracity of any claims about the identity of those killed. Amnesty International documented cases in which, after strikes, armed groups recovered dead bodies and shifted them to unknown areas, impeding identification of those killed.

These circumstances underscore the need for the US government to conduct systematic, independent and comprehensive investigations into allegations of potentially unlawful deaths, which go beyond basic post-strike assessments that can miss crucial information.

The Administration bears responsibility, but Congress also has an important role to play. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are jointly calling on Congress to fully investigate the cases the two organizations have documented and other potentially unlawful deaths, and to disclose any evidence of human rights violations to the public.

The Obama Administration’s recent disclosures provided only a veneer of transparency to a program that remains fundamentally secretive and unaccountable. Without full investigations and accountability, any recent drone reforms will simply be promises without a guarantee. 

About the Author(s)

Naureen Shah

Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program Follow her on Twitter (@naureenshah).