Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a joint report accusing the United States of indiscriminately carrying out targeted killings in violation of international human rights law. "Between a Drone and al-Qaeda" documents six strikes in Yemen from between 2009 and 2013, showing a pattern of recklessly endangering civilians and going beyond President Barack Obama's stated rules for extrajudicial attacks, possibly violating the laws of war and killing dozens of people with no ties to terrorism.
One of the problems with analyzing and criticizing the targeted killing program is that the Obama administration has been slow to release information about it, with much of our knowledge coming from leaked documents and later justifications. The White House refused to acknowledge its drone program until last year, and it's released very little information about casualties or individual strikes (though it has provided some details about Americans killed by the program.) Amnesty and Human Rights Watch relied on outside reports of Yemeni drone strikes for overall statistics, then conducted six weeks of fieldwork on the cases it investigated, interviewing witnesses to the strikes, relatives of the victims, Yemeni officials, analysts, and others. Where videos and documents were available, they were also analyzed.
"Now when villagers see these images, they think of America."
Most of the attacks in question were "drone strikes" carried out by unmanned aircraft against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Of the six cases, four involved drones, one cruise missiles, and one either drones or warplanes. The Obama administration has praised the drone program for being able to make cleaner strikes with fewer casualties than traditional attacks, and the report doesn't directly take issue with the use of unmanned planes. But Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say these six strikes show that the administration is failing to live up to its own standards and, in some cases, outright violating international human rights law.
According to the report, a total of 82 people were killed in the six strikes, at least 57 of them civilians. Separate studies from the UK Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation list between 50 and 80 confirmed drone strikes in Yemen with several hundred killed, though the vast majority of overall casualties are militants. In most of the report's six cases, the US accurately targeted a member of AQAP. But the collateral damage was often far greater, as the strikes killed civilians and, in at least one case, an explicit opponent of al-Qaeda. Even when casualties were APAQ members, it was sometimes unclear whether targeted killing, which is meant to be used only against people who pose serious threats and cannot be captured, was justified.
12 of the truck's 14 civilian passengers were killed, including three children and a pregnant woman
In 2009, one strike killed 41 civilians (including 21 children) along with 14 suspected AQAP fighters. In the aftermath, the US suggested that Yemen had carried out the airstrike, but leaked diplomatic cables show collaboration between the two countries; in one, the Deputy Prime Minister jokes that he "lied" about the US' involvement after President Ali Abdullah Saleh tells General David Petraeus he'll "continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." In another, a drone or plane operator attempted to kill an alleged al-Qaeda leader but, according to an anonymous official, hit the wrong vehicle. 12 of the truck's 14 civilian passengers were killed, including three children and a pregnant woman.
Beyond the legality of the strikes, the report emphasizes a common fear: that indiscriminate killing has proved more valuable as terrorist propaganda than military action. In August 2012, one strike killed five men in an attack on members of AQAP. But two of the men, Salim and Walid Jaber, had no ties to the group — one was a policeman, the other a local cleric who spoke out against al-Qaeda and had allegedly been called to meet with members as an intimidation tactic. Images from the aftermath showed the men's mutilated and barely identifiable bodies. "Now when villagers see these images," said relative Faisal Jaber, "they think of America." Earlier this year, Yemeni journalist Farea al-Muslimi said that drone strikes "are the face of America to many Yemenis," describing a strike on a man who, he said, could have been easily arrested instead.
In light of these cases, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are calling for the Obama administration and Congress to fully investigate the cases in question and officially clarify the "full legal basis" of the targeted killing program. The UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile, should conduct its own investigations, and the the council's special rapporteur should "devote substantial attention to the issue of targeted killings in Yemen during his next visit to the country, and should recommend to the Human Rights Council the concrete steps Yemen and the US should take to fulfill their international legal obligations." The special rapporteur has already called on the US to release more information about its drone program, saying that the CIA's involvement in targeted killings "has created an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency."