Last week, the Department of Defense made the claim, in its annual report on civilian casualties in conflict, that it killed no civilians in Yemen in 2019. It claimed the same in 2018. Neither year was that true.
We were disappointed, if not surprised, by the failure to reckon with the real toll that U.S. military action has taken in Yemen. Mwatana for Human Rights, the Yemen-based human rights organization for which we work, has documented the impact of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen for the last seven years. In the nearly 20 years since the United States began carrying out these attacks, it has never fully acknowledged the civilian cost, nor provided civilian victims the acknowledgment, apology, and redress they deserve.
Each drone strike on yet another Yemeni civilian increases community frustration and diminishes people’s sense of safety. It also hardens beliefs that the United States is indifferent to Yemeni loss of life. As human rights activists once again reading the Defense Department’s perennial undercount of the civilian cost of U.S. military action, it is hard for us not to feel the same.
The report released last week does represent a small step towards greater transparency. For the last three years, Congress has required the Pentagon to report on the number of civilians killed and wounded in U.S. military operations, including in Yemen. The publication of these reports is welcome, and each year’s report has, in general, included more details.
But on Yemen, those details remain disappointingly sparse. The report for 2019 states the Defense Department had “no credible reports of civilian casualties.” The 2018 report reached the same conclusion, but had added a few important details: how many airstrikes the U.S. carried out that year (36), that U.S. forces had deployed to Yemen, and in which governorates the United States supported efforts led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen to clear of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters.
The report is only required to cover a thin slice of overall U.S. operations abroad. It does not account for any strikes carried out by the CIA, or the civilian impact of U.S.-supported military operations like those of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, which have harmed thousands and helped decimate a country teetering towards humanitarian collapse. Congress sought to plug part of this gap elsewhere for Yemen, requiring reporting on civilian casualties caused by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. But ensuring a true accounting of the civilian impact of U.S. partner operations, including the exact U.S. role in that impact, remains crucial.
No Clear Reporting Channel
To its blanket claim of finding no civilian casualties, the Defense Department report for 2019 added only that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which covers the region, had not received any reports from international organizations or NGOs regarding potential civilian casualties. This is not surprising. To our knowledge, there is no clear, publicly communicated reporting channel for either NGOs in Yemen or for civilians harmed by U.S. military operations. The report states that regional commands consider “reports available from any source, including…local civilians.” Civilians interviewed by Mwatana researchers knew of no way to report what happened to them. Even if a person or NGO could report, how the U.S. determines what meets the “credibility” threshold provides an additional hurdle. Among other challenges analyzed recently by CIVIC and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the source of a report must be deemed “credible,” report details must correlate with internal military records (which may be incomplete or inaccurate), and explanations of why certain reports are deemed non-credible are rare.
The U.S. military should better facilitate receiving reports from, and opening dialogue with, civil society in countries where it conducts military operations. Groups like ours, working on the ground in areas of conflict, have access to information the military does not and often are well-placed to quickly and credibly raise concerns about civilian impact and wider patterns of harm. Taking these concerns seriously could go a long way to improving processes and remedying wrongs.
Mwatana’s staff — women and men dedicated to working towards a Yemen without war — have documented U.S. attacks that have killed and wounded dozens of civilians in Yemen over the years, including attacks in both 2018 and 2019. Both the 2018 and 2019 Defense Department reports undercounted the number of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations in Yemen. That’s a fundamental flaw for a report that is intended primarily to count civilian casualties transparently.
The United States claims it has classified intelligence that NGOs like ours do not see. Perhaps, but we have access to the men, women, and children who survived, witnessed, or were otherwise impacted by these attacks. Mwatana researchers visited strike sites, took photos and videos, interviewed victims, relatives and other witnesses and collected documents in 2018 and 2019. A different picture than the one the United States paints quickly emerges.
Just Two Examples
In late January 2019, Saleh al-Qaisi, a 55-year-old Yemeni man who worked as a wall painter in Saudi Arabia, was visiting his family in al-Bayda governorate. The village is in an extremely remote area of Yemen, and services like water and electricity are limited to non-existent. He dropped his wife and three children off at a family member’s house, then chatted for a bit with another relative in the village. The relative said, “I had been on my bike when I met Uncle Saleh… he reminded me of some funny anecdotes while we were working in Saudi Arabia. Then he continued on his way… Suddenly, I heard an aircraft hitting his car.”
An apparent U.S. strike had hit al-Qaisi’s car. He was near the local health center. After the first strike, a witness said, people in the area wanted to reach him to help, but the aircraft remained visible in the sky. They feared another strike. When al-Qaisi tried to get out of his car, a second strike killed him.
Less than a year before, in March 2018 in Hadramawt governorate, a 12-year-old boy and his 17-year-old cousin were driving home after dropping female relatives off at a funeral. At about 4 p.m., a U.S. strike hit the boys’ vehicle, killing 12-year-old Amer and severely wounding his older cousin, Hassan.
For both of these strikes, as for many others, Mwatana found no credible indication that al-Qaisi, Amer or Hassan were directly participating in hostilities—or, for that matter, in any way affiliated—with AQAP or the self-styled “Islamic State” affiliate in Yemen (IS-Y) People described al-Qaisi as beloved, with good manners, and known as a person who did not involve himself in political or military affairs. His community organized a protest after the attack that killed him.
Amer’s teacher said he was a “very, very good child” and that his family, which had “nothing,” had “high hopes for him.” His mother said her son would come home from school to help her with chores. Mwatana saw his school certificate. Hassan, Amer’s cousin, served in the Yemeni military. He was not a civilian. He did, however, regularly go to work at a military base of the Yemeni government, a close ally of the United States, calling into question, if he was the target, why a lethal attack would be necessary.
In Mwatana’s many years documenting U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, we’ve listened to relatives of those killed who are convinced the attack was a mistake. At first, they expect the United States and the Yemeni government will apologize and provide the victims with justice and a remedy. After the attack, Amer’s relatives said they hoped for reparation and an apology. One said, “If we keep silent about this crime, the number of similar strikes against innocent people will increase.”
As strikes on civilians continue without acknowledgment or redress, that hope often fades. As one of Mwatana’s field researchers said, “Every time I travel back from a drones attack site in my governorate, I feel very sad and convinced that these victims are victims three times.” The researcher explained that Yemenis in areas frequently targeted by U.S. drones face multilayered hardship: from U.S. aerial attacks, from armed extremist groups, and from the widespread poverty, hunger, and lack of basic services.
Undercounting civilian impact furthers the harm. Whatever the reason for the undercount — failing to collect or consider important sources of evidence like witness interviews, the use of an overbroad definition of who is a combatant, or the failure to acknowledge civilian casualties resulting from strikes on otherwise lawful targets — each year the report promises some semblance of acknowledgment for Yemenis, and each year it disappoints.
There are a number of steps the United States could take to mitigate civilian harm in Yemen, starting with conducting better investigations. That includes creating a clear and accessible channel for civil society organizations and civilians, such as witnesses and family members, to report harm. Regular reporting on the impact of U.S.-supported operations, and greater transparency on both investigations and operations, would also constitute steps forward. One simple example: Given the ongoing, brutal conflict in Yemen, attribution of aerial attacks can be difficult. Greater U.S. transparency on what date, where exactly and on whom strikes are carried out, and where others’ operations are supported, would help facilitate investigations.
In the interests of accountability and redress, the United States should conduct effective investigations into all credible allegations of unlawful civilian casualties associated with U.S. military operations in Yemen. The U.S. should also apologize for civilian losses, and establish a formal, accessible mechanism — with materials available in Arabic — through which civilians can seek and obtain prompt and meaningful reparations and other amends.
Acknowledgment of civilian deaths, paired with redress and justice, can go a long way towards disrupting cycles of violence. The failure of the United States to even adequately acknowledge those killed and wounded in its own attacks only serves to further engender distrust among affected communities.
IMAGE: A Yemeni man looks at graffiti protesting US drone strikes on September 19, 2018 in Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)