What Next for U.S. Drone Policy?

June 6, 2013

The CIA knew neither the identity nor the affiliation of about one in four people it killed in drone strikes, an NBC News report released yesterday found. The news agency reviewed classified CIA documents describing U.S. strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan over a 14-month period starting in September 2010. The news report underscores the need for independent and impartial investigations into allegations of unlawful killings, as Amnesty has repeatedly sought.

By Naureen Shah, co-author of The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions

In a major speech on national security last month, President Obama for the first time spoke at length about drone strikes. (See Amnesty International’s in-depth analysis, “Words, War, and the Rule of Law“). He called civilian casualties “heartbreaking tragedies” that will “haunt us as long as we live.” He said his administration had put in place a standard for using lethal force that “respects the inherent dignity of every human life.” These welcome words must be followed up by strong actions: greater transparency with the public, investigations of deaths, accountability for illegal killings, and compliance with the law.

Here are five steps President Obama should take to bring the U.S. government’s drone strikes closer in line with international law and his stated commitment to the dignity of human life:

  • 1) Disclose Information on All Individuals Killed – Not Just Citizens: The U.S. government took a step in the right direction when, on the eve of President Obama’s speech, it released the names of four US citizens killed in drone strikes. But almost all of the people killed in drone strikes have been non-citizens, and the U.S. government should go further: it should declassify and disclose the names and locations of all individuals killed from drone strikes and other targeted killings.
  • 2) Be Transparent with the Public: While President Obama pledged to provide information to Congress, the public also deserves to know key information. This includes declassified versions of secret administration legal memoranda on the use of lethal force and a declassified version of the policy guidance that President Obama recently signed. While the White House did release a public fact sheet on use of force “outside the United States and areas of active hostilities,” without greater disclosure there will remain too many unanswered questions about the rules and laws the U.S. government applies.
  • 3) Investigate Alleged Unlawful Killings: President Obama was right to acknowledge civilian deaths from drone strikes, but he must go beyond words and ensure that all cases of alleged extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings are investigated independently and impartially, with the methodology and findings of investigations made public.
  • 4) Guarantee Remedy & Accountability: Where killings are found unlawful, the USA should ensure that victims or their families have genuine access to meaningful remedy, as required by international law. Moreover, when it comes to litigation on unlawful killings, the USA must end any use of secrecy that blocks remedy or accountability.
  • 5) Follow the Law: The White House’s public fact sheet states that outside of “areas of active hostilities,” lethal force will only be used against an individual who “poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” While it is possible that this standard could meet international law requirements in individual cases, the devil remains in the detail. The USA should reject the “global war” framework and commit to following the law, rather than rules of its own. Any lethal force outside of specified and recognized zones of armed conflict must meet the USA’s obligations under international human rights law. Within such a zone of armed conflict, the USA must respect both international human rights and humanitarian law, including by recognizing the rule that if there is doubt as to whether a person is a civilian, the person is to be considered a civilian.

The President was right to break his silence on the USA’s drone strikes. He should now embrace transparency and accountability as the way forward – not merely in words, but in deed.