08 March 2018
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NGO Statement on Reported Changes to U.S. Policy on Use of Armed Drones and Other Lethal Force
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The Trump administrations failure thus far to release and explain the changes it has made to a previously public policy is a dangerous step backwards. Transparency around the use of lethal force is critical to allowing independent scrutiny of the lawfulness of operations and to providing accountability and redress for victims of violations of international law. Transparency also helps governments identify and address civilian harm. It enables the public to be informed about some of the most important policy choices the government makes in its name ones that involve life and death decisions. While transparency can enhance the legitimacy of government actions, secrecy, by contrast, heightens existing concerns and creates new ones.
We are deeply concerned that the reported new policy, combined with this administrations reported dramatic increase in lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia, will lead to an increase in unlawful killings and in civilian casualties. As many of the undersigned groups wrote to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in June 2017, the United States should be strengthening, rather than weakening, the previous administrations policies governing the use of force. With the rapid proliferation of armed drone technology, the United States should not roll back policies intended to improve compliance with international law and reduce civilian harm. Rather, the United States should set an example for the rest of the world on adhering to international law and ensuring that governments are transparent and accountable when using lethal force.outlines
Concerns About the Reported Lethal Force Policy Changes:
Unlawful targeting outside of armed conflict
The undisclosed policy reportedly allows lethal targeting much more broadly than international law permits. Under international law, intentional lethal force may only be used outside of armed conflict when strictly necessary to prevent an imminent threat to life. Within the exceptional situation of an armed conflict, the United States may only target members of an enemys armed forces, military objectives, or civilians directly participating in hostilities.
The new policy reportedly preserves the existing requirement of near certainty that no civilians are present before a lethal strike is allowed. This is an important safeguard that will unfortunately be undermined if the new policy allows targeting of individuals that are improperly classified as combatants or if lethal force is used outside of armed conflict absent an imminent threat to life.
Lack of clarity around the capture requirement
It is unclear if the new policy retains the requirement that the government capture individuals whenever feasible, rather than using lethal force. Outside of armed conflict, such a policy is required by international law. Lethal force is prohibited in a number of different circumstances even in situations of armed conflict. Eliminating the requirement to capture individuals when feasible when operating outside areas of active hostilities puts more civilians at risk and increases the likelihood of lethal force being used in violation of human rights law.
Expanded role of the CIA
News reports also indicate thatthe Trump administration is giving the CIA an expanded role in carrying out drone strikes with less review from the White House. The CIAs drone program has long been shrouded in secrecy, undermining the rule of law by circumventing public oversight, due process, and accountability for civilian casualties. People in areas most affected by U.S. lethal activity report that it is the absence of transparency and accountability including even a simple acknowledgment of the cause of a loved ones death that weighs most heavily on them. Conducting lethal strikes behind a veil of secrecy deprives people who are harmed of any recourse, acknowledgement, or accountability for their loss. As Rafiq Ur Rehman, son of Mamana Bibi, a 67-year-old grandmother killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in October 2012, told Congress in 2013 [A]s a teacher, my job is to educate. But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother and injured my children?
Concerns about increase in civilian casualties and inadequate accountability
These concerns about U.S. policy are heightened by recent changes in U.S. practice. In the first year of the Trump administration, there has been a dramatic increase in U.S. lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia, including a number of concerning incidents involving credible allegations of civilian casualties. At the same time, civilian casualties caused by U.S. and coalition operations in Iraq and Syria have reportedly increased. In many of these cases, we are unaware of any comprehensive investigation, remedy, or condolence payments for victims of violations and their families. These trends and incidents heighten our concerns about the U.S. loosening its policy rules on the use of force.
American Civil Liberties Union
Center for Civilians in Conflict
Center for Constitutional Rights
Coalition for Peace Action
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Human Rights Clinic Columbia Law School
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Open Society Foundations
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