Obama rejects growing international concern over drones, unleashes carnage in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Anti-drone graffiti in Yemen

Despite a recent flurry of international criticism of the U.S. drone assassination program and some tentative domestic attempts to force more transparency regarding the program, no significant policy changes are being made to bring drone strikes in line with U.S. and international law. In fact, the Obama administration seems intent on demonstrating its continued obstinacy by intensifying the use of killer drones in counter-terrorist operations in Yemen, killing scores of people recently in the bloodiest spate of strikes since March 2012.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported on April 22,

The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said air strikes had killed dozens of suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, including several allegedly high-ranking militants.

‘The security authorities stated that the air strikes, which lasted for several hours, killed around 55 terrorists from [AQAP], including three movement leaders,’ the interior ministry said. Unnamed US officials told the New York Times CIA drones were used in the airstrikes.

But as Rooj Alwazir of the Support Yemen media collective pointed out, there is no way of really knowing how many of the victims obliterated by U.S. drones were actually militants and how many were innocent civilians.

The Yemeni government “is saying pretty much what the US government wants to hear, which is that 55 militants were killed over the weekend in southern province of Yemen,” said Alwazir on the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast.

What you’re not hearing is that included in these 55 are civilians. What you’re not hearing are the names of people who were killed. The Ministry of Interior in particular has come out and claimed that the strike in al Bayda, south of the Yemeni capital, killed ten militants and he actually for the first time acknowledged three civilians were killed. In al Marib and al Shabwah they claimed that over 23-30 militants were killed. When asked who they were, when asked who their names were and if any investigations have happened, they don’t comment. They’re still saying that they are doing DNA tests and etc.

What’s interesting about these particular air strikes that happened over the weekend is that this is the first time that we actually saw special operations on the ground, meaning when air strikes had happened in the past in Yemen air strikes are usually just laying there. No investigations are happening ever. This is the first time where the military came after the air strikes and picked up the dead bodies. So this is what’s really getting us activists and journalists, etc, people we question what happened this time around.

Yemeni human rights researcher Baraa Shiban noted that “the Yemeni government has not provided any names, or at least any names even to the public, to show that those people who are targeted in those drone strikes are an imminent threat to the security of the country.”

He said that neither the United States nor the Yemeni government knows who they are killing in these attacks. “These drone strikes and the drone programs inside Yemen violate both the Yemeni constitution and the international law,” he pointed out.

An April 21 BIJ report provided some detail on confirmed civilian casualties in the recent Yemeni attacks:

Multiple sources including military officials and eyewitnesses described how a US drone attacked a truck that was carrying alleged members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and also hit a vehicle carrying civilians. At least 10 – and possibly as many as 21 – were reportedly killed in the attack, including at least three civilians. They were described as ‘construction workers‘ or ‘labourers’ by some reports.

This is the highest death toll of any confirmed drone strike in Yemen so far this year.

Cautious attempts at forcing more transparency and disclosure from the White House on these matters have recently been abandoned by the U.S. Congress, which apparently has caved to pressure from the military and intelligence establishment.

“At the behest of the director of national intelligence,” the Guardian reported on Monday, “U.S. senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.”

When it passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, the bill originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year.

But after receiving a letter from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who assured them that the Obama administration was seeking its own ways to increase transparency about its highly controversial drone strikes, Senate leaders meekly removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The senators evidently took Clapper’s word, despite the fact that he is a known perjurer who has been caught lying to Congress in relation to NSA surveillance activities.

The fresh carnage in Yemen was unleashed in spite of a number of recent attempts by the international community to rein in the lawless U.S. drone assassination program, obviously to no avail.

For example, in a report issued February 28 by Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, the U.S. was urged to ensure that “any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of remotely piloted aircraft, comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.”

The Special Rapporteur also urged the U.S. to ensure that, “in any case in which there is a plausible indication from any apparently reliable source that civilians have been killed or injured in a counter-terrorism operation, including through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, the relevant authorities conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry, and provide a detailed public explanation.”

Needless to say, this recommended inquiry is not taking place in relation to the civilians recently incinerated by U.S. drones in Yemen.

Another UN report, issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in late March, expressed grave concern about the U.S.’s practice of targeted killings by drones, particularly “the lack of transparency regarding the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal justification for specific attacks, and the lack of accountability for the loss of life resulting from such attacks.”

According to the Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations on the United States’ periodic review on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,

The Committee remains concerned about the State party’s very broad approach to the definition and geographical scope of “armed conflict”, including the end of hostilities, the unclear interpretation of what constitutes an “imminent threat”, who is a combatant or a civilian taking direct part in hostilities, the unclear position on the nexus that should exist between any particular use of lethal force and any specific theatre of hostilities, as well as the precautionary measures taken to avoid civilian casualties in practice (arts. 2, 6 and 14).

Due to these concerns, the UN Committee urged the U.S. to “revisit its position regarding legal justifications for the use of deadly force through drone attacks.”

In particular, it should:

(a)          Ensure that any use of armed drones complies fully with its obligations under article 6 of the Covenant, including, in particular, with respect to the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in the context of an armed conflict;

(b)          Subject to operational security, disclose the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal basis for specific attacks, the process of target identification and the circumstances in which drones are used;

(c)           Provide for independent supervision and oversight of the specific implementation of regulations governing the use of drone strikes;

(d)          In armed conflict situations, take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks and to track and assess civilian casualties, as well as all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid such casualties;

(e)          Conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations of allegations of violations of the right to life and bring to justice those responsible;

(f)           Provide victims or their families with an effective remedy where there has been a violation, including adequate compensation, and establish accountability mechanisms for victims of allegedly unlawful drone attacks who are not compensated by their home governments.

On the domestic front, a U.S. court has ordered the release of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. U.S. intelligence officials contend al-Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and Obama ordered his assassination without trial in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Two weeks later, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, another U.S. citizen was assassinated in a separate strike.

As the ACLU explained the April 21 opinion,

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit roundly rejected the government’s extreme claims of official secrecy over information about the program. In ordering the release of a 2010 legal memorandum by the Office of Legal Counsel analyzing the potential targeted killing of an American citizen, as well as other information about records the government has previously refused to describe at all, the Second Circuit became the first court to order the release of a document related to the government’s targeted killing program. It also became the second federal appeals court in the last 13 months to hold that the government has pushed its secrecy claims surrounding the targeted killing program past their breaking point.

In today’s opinion, the Second Circuit panel held that the government’s repeated public assurances that the targeted killing program is lawful, and its disclosure of a “white paper” that summarized its legal conclusions, had waived its right under the Freedom of Information Act to keep secret its legal analysis authorizing the killing of U.S. citizens. This is a victory for common sense, and a reminder that the courts have an important role to play in scrutinizing government claims about national security.

Also somewhat promising in terms of increasing transparency over these strikes is the fact that more and more individuals – including a number of drone operators themselves – are stepping forward to reveal their inside knowledge about this controversial program. As Heather Linebaugh, a former drone operator, recently wrote in the Guardian,

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.

She also discussed the heavy emotional toll of launching missiles and ending human lives on a daily basis, even when operating the drones from thousands of miles away:

I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it. And when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience. UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were.

As the Obama administration continues to ignore the pleas from the international community to rethink the lawless approach to drone strikes, these haunting memories will only continue to grow for the drone operators like Heather Linebaugh tasked with deciding whether to end someone’s life based on grainy, pixelated images.

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