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Trump threat puts European role in lethal US drone strikes under new scrutiny

As the Trump administration prepares to further expand the US’s lethal drone program, increasing the risk of civilian casualties and unlawful killings, Amnesty International is calling on four European countries to urgently overhaul the crucial operational and intelligence assistance they provide to the program.

Amnesty International and others have documented cases, under successive US administrations, where US drone strikes have killed people who were not directly participating in hostilities or posed no imminent threat to life, including children. In a new report, Deadly Assistance: The role of European states in US Drone Strikes, Amnesty International uses open source information to map out the assistance the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy provide to the US drone program, and shows how these states risk being held responsible for violations under international law.

“The UK, German, Dutch and Italian governments have been assisting in the USA’s secret global killing program for years, providing vital intelligence and infrastructure despite mounting civilian casualties and allegations of unlawful killings, including war crimes,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Arms Control, Security Trade and Human Rights.

“With Trump at the helm the threat to civilians is greater than ever and there is an urgent need for more transparency. If European states are confident they have played no part in unlawful killings then they should be able to demonstrate that. Otherwise they need to ask themselves if they want to continue supporting a secretive program that uses potentially unreliable intelligence and shaky legal grounds to single people out for killing.”

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes have killed as many as 1,551 civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2004.

Drone strikes have already increased dramatically under President Trump. The Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, estimated that President Trump approved at least 36 drone strikes or special operations raids in his first 45 days in office. According to media reports, Trump has also rolled back limited Obama-era protections on the drone program. A new, still-secret policy reportedly allows targeting of a much larger number of individuals even if they are not clearly identified, and relaxes the requirement for “near certainty” that a lawful target is present.

In Deadly Assistance, Amnesty International sets out how the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy may be responsible for assisting in potentially unlawful US drone operations and may be violating their own obligations under international law. The report also highlights how a climate of secrecy makes it difficult to establish what safeguards – if any – these states have in place to ensure they are not assisting in unlawful drone strikes.

Deadly Assistance explores how:

  • The UK, Germany and the Netherlands share intelligence which allows the US to locate potential targets for further surveillance or drone strikes;
  • Germany and the Netherlands provide metadata (e.g. information about communications such as time and location of phone calls) that could be used to target people for strikes;
  • The UK, Germany and Italy allow the US to operate on bases on their territory, which provide crucial communications and intelligence infrastructure, enabling the transmission of information between drone operators in the US and armed drones carrying out lethal strikes across the globe;
  • Italy allows the US to launch armed drones from a US base in Sicily for defensive strikes.

These arrangements are likely to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex and sophisticated network of European support for US drone strikes.

Secretive assistance

The lack of transparency which characterizes the US drone program has impeded accountability and access to justice for victims and their families. A 2013 Amnesty International report documented how multiple drone strikes in Pakistan had resulted in the deaths of 18 laborers, including a 14-year-old-boy, and a 68-year-old woman. The US has never publicly committed to investigating the cases of potentially unlawful killings that Amnesty International documented, or provided its own account of what occurred.

Where connections have been made between European assistance and potentially unlawful strikes under the US drone program, there has often been a similar refusal by the governments involved to investigate or engage.

For example, in 2015 UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) documents provided to The Guardian by Edward Snowden showed how a surveillance program located in the UK had facilitated a drone strike in Yemen in March 2012 that targeted and killed two men described as members of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the strike also killed one civilian, a 60-year-old man, and injured between six and nine civilians, including six children. GCHQ declined to comment at the time.

“The extreme secrecy which shrouds the US drone program – including the arrangements it has with other states – has led to a pervasive lack of accountability, both for the USA and its European partners,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim.

“National security is being used as a pretext to evade all scrutiny. It is frightening to think that European states are providing assistance that could be used by the USA to make life-and-death decisions with little or no oversight.”

Amnesty International has raised particular concerns about the accuracy and reliability of ‘signals intelligence’ (SIGINT) – which the US often gathers from foreign partners and uses to target individuals. According to an investigation by The Intercept, leaked Pentagon documents show that, during one five-month period in 2013, 90% of those killed by US drone strikes in Operation Haymaker (a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan) were unintended targets. It is unclear whether the US has since implemented safeguards around its use of signals intelligence.

“The USA calls these ‘targeted’ killings but the evidence suggests they are anything but. The number of civilian deaths and unintended targets documented means that there is a clear risk of intelligence or other assistance provided by European states being used in unlawful US strikes,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim.

“At this crucial moment, European states need to stand up for the rule of law and overhaul their assistance to this deadly program.”

Amnesty International is calling on the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy to refrain from assisting in US drone strikes that may violate international human rights law, which applies to the use of armed drones by the US at all times, or international humanitarian law, which applies to those drone strikes carried out as part of an actual armed conflict.

Amnesty International is also calling on these four states, where they have not already done so, to initiate full public inquiries into their assistance to the US drone program. They must ensure prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they have provided assistance to a US drone strike that has resulted in unlawful killings. They must also provide urgent public clarification on the safeguards they have in place to ensure they are not aiding and assisting in potentially unlawful US drone strikes.

Amnesty International is also urging the US to publicly disclose its new rules governing the use of lethal force abroad, including specific rules on targeting for lethal operations.

While Amnesty International does not oppose the use of armed drones, it has consistently called on the US to ensure its use of these weapons complies with its obligations under international law, including international human rights law and, where applicable, international humanitarian law.

See Key Principles on the Use and Transfer of Armed Drones.

Government responses

Amnesty International sent summaries of its findings and concerns to the governments of the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. At the time of publication, only the governments of the Netherlands and Germany had responded.

The Netherlands stated that it does not cooperate with unlawful targeted killings. It also stated that the Minister of Defense had adopted and implemented, a series of recommendations made by the Dutch Review Committee on the Intelligence and Security Services (Commissie van Toezicht op de Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdiensten) regarding safeguards to prevent the sharing of intelligence which could be used for the unlawful use of force by other states.

However, the response confirmed that the Netherlands has no specific policy governing the provision of assistance to US lethal operations, including the US drone program. Instead, it applies a general framework to data exchange under which various factors are assessed before sharing data, including respect for international humanitarian law and the human rights policy of country in question, and under which cooperation is reassessed in certain circumstances.

The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied stating that, in relation to questions on intelligence services, it can only share information with the relevant parliamentary control committees whose communication is secret. The German Foreign Ministry said it was unable to answer some of the questions raised in Amnesty International’s letter due to ongoing litigation regarding Germany’s role in US drone strikes.

Note: an interactive map to the report is available here.