By Elizabeth Beavers, Security with Human Rights Policy and Activism Coordinator, Amnesty International USA
The Obama administration is expected to release never-before-seen data on who has been killed in the U.S. drone program, and a new executive order requiring these disclosures to continue. Amnesty International has been calling on the White House to commit to disclosing this information for years, and we continue to push for more.
Here are Amnesty’s answers to key questions about these developments.
Question: Isn’t a new executive order on drones meaningless, because the next administration could simply withdraw it?
Answer: Issuing an executive order is a vital step in the right direction, and it is meaningful no matter what happens next. It has implications for the world and for future generations. It sets a precedent for how future administrations, and other governments, use lethal drone technology. We’ve long urged the U.S. to have clear rules and mechanisms for accountability — to avoid clearing a path for future presidents, other countries, or armed groups to use lethal drones in secret and without accountability. And this is a game-changer: To go backward on this commitment to disclose casualties, a future U.S. administration would have to actively change entrenched policy and withdraw a standing executive order.
Question: Does the data show that the U.S. is using higher standards to avoid civilian casualties than anyone else?
Answer: It is true that the standards described in some administration documents, such as not conducting a strike unless there is “near certainty” that “noncombatants will not be injured or killed”, go beyond what is required by the laws of war. But that misses the point. The entire world is not a battlefield– the laws of war are intended for specific places at specific times and under specific circumstances, and are not intended to stretch across the globe in a permanent, endless, secretive “forever war” paradigm. By deploying drone strikes under this theory, the U.S. is blurring the lines between where armed conflict begins and ends, who can be killed and on what legal basis, and whether a killing is actually lawful. Only by disclosing more information can these questions be debated and answered.
Question: Does the drones data show that civilian casualties have been low?
Answer: It’s impossible to assess the accuracy of the data disclosed by the White House, without more details. Amnesty International does not compile overall data on the number of those killed in drone strikes, or their identities. But our independent investigations certainly tell a different story. Amnesty International documented the case of Mamana Bibi, a woman who was killed by drone strike in front of her grandchildren while gathering vegetables alone in a field, and whose death has never been acknowledged or explained by the U.S. government. The Obama administration already publicly acknowledged and apologized for what it said were unintended drones deaths when an American citizen and an Italian citizen were killed in 2014. By simply affording non-Western victims of unlawful strikes that same truth and dignity, the U.S. can take a step forward toward justice and accountability.