Human Rights Groups to Obama: Time to Follow Through on Drone Promises

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Human Rights Groups to Obama: Time to Follow Through on Drone Promises

A letter sent Thursday lists '10 US Strikes Requiring Investigation and Acknowledgement' by the US government

U.S. airmen prepare a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it leaves on a mission at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan on March 9, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

A dozen human rights, civil liberties, and faith groups are calling on President Barack Obama to follow through on the promise he made via executive order in July to transparently probe and address civilian deaths from drone strikes.

A letter sent Thursday from groups including Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Reprieve lists "10 U.S. Strikes Requiring Investigation and Acknowledgement," asking that Obama "direct the relevant agencies, at a minimum, to:

  • Publicly acknowledge U.S. government responsibility for these strikes;
  • Ensure review and prompt, thorough, effective, independent, impartial, and transparent investigations into these cases and all other cases in which civilians are reported to have been killed or injured;
  • Publicly disclose the methodology, scope, and findings of these investigations. With only those redactions necessary to protect information that is properly classified, acknowledge and provide explanations where there are discrepancies between findings of the U.S. government's investigations and those of the United Nations, human rights organizations, and journalists, including how these findings were assessed in the course of U.S. investigations;
  • Provide details of any lessons that can be learned from these reviews or investigations of these incidents that have led, or will lead, to measures to avoid unlawful strikes and better avoid, or at least minimize, civilian casualties;
  • Offer condolence payments and other forms of compensation to civilians injured or the families of civilians killed in these strikes."

The strikes named in the letter took place in Yemen and Pakistan from 2009 to 2014. The signatories stress that they do not consider theirs to be "an exhaustive list," but rather "examples of strikes in which civilian harm has been credibly alleged."

The groups note the Obama administration's "public acknowledgment and apology for the deaths of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto," the American and Italian, respectively, who were killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan last year. They also cite recent news that the U.S. government has agreed to pay compensation to Lo Porto's family.

"These are welcome initiatives," the letter reads, "that should be followed in a systematic fashion, which the executive order commits to doing...Doing so would go a long way to providing dignity and a measure of justice to victims and families and set a strong precedent for future administrations to follow."

Obama's executive order was issued in early July alongside a maligned report that claimed U.S. drone strikes have killed between 64 and 116 civilians in areas outside of active hostilities since 2009. That number was much lower than the estimates of independent groups.

According to The Intercept:

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Obama reflected on the dangers of institutionalizing a regime of secretive borderless warfare executed primarily by drones, and claimed that his administration had done much to rein in "institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies." He insisted that the decision to pull back the program somewhat "had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up." But he nonetheless credited "having these nonprofits continue to question and protest" as an influence on reform.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the United States was among more than 40 countries to sign onto a declaration "recognizing that misuse of armed or strike-enabled [unmanned aerial vehicles] could fuel conflict and instability."

But, as Reprieve noted in a press statement, the Obama administration is also arguing in the U.S. federal court case Jaber v. Obama—scheduled to be heard in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 13—that its drone program and practices are beyond the reach of the U.S. courts. Reprieve has called the case "Obama's first chance to make good on his recent executive order on American drone killing."

"President Obama is right to warn of a perpetual covert drone war; he is right to promise transparency," said Reprieve staff attorney Jennifer Gibson on Thursday. "But his words aren't enough. The Obama administration must investigate mistakes in the drone program, keep an accurate count of civilian deaths and be publicly accountable. That process must start now. Any delay could mean that President Obama's promised transparency vanishes with a new administration, and that his worst fears about drones come to pass."

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