Don’t Loosen the Rules on Civilian Casualties During Drone Strikes

U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen

Senior Advisor For Civic's US Program Raniel R. Mahanty has some thoughts on US use of drones and civilan harm.

Since Donald Trump took office, the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes has skyrocketed. Now, a dozen human rights groups are calling on the United States to strengthen and preserve its commitment to avoid harming civilians outside of war zones during counterterrorism strikes. As more countries acquire — and use — armed drones, it is vital for the U.S. to say that there is no such thing as an “acceptable” civilian casualty caused by lethal strikes outside of conflict. A failure to do so risks creating a world where not only is the U.S. no longer one of the few countries using these drones, but more countries will begin to use them in a way the U.S. cannot control.

Read the rest at DefenseOne

US Program Weekly Update

As part of our expanded online presence and making our work more accessible, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) will be posting occasional updates to our various programs. Our US program, which is helmed by Special Advisor, Daniel R. Mahanty, is the first one. We hope you find it useful as a snapshot of our work around the world to protect civilians trapped in conflict.


Raqqa: Around 160,000 civilians remain in the city of Raqqa, including 40,000 children. Last week, UN investigators said that intensified U.S.-led Coalition airstrikes in Raqqa have caused a “staggering loss of civilian life,” including at least 300 civilian deaths since March. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 117 civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in 12 days of fighting. Amnesty International found that the Coalition’s use of white phosphorous in Raqqa is unlawful and may amount to a war crime.

CIVIC: Recommendations to the Anti-ISIS Coalition on Operations in Syria

Mosul: Iraqi forces have encircled the Islamic State in Mosul’s Old City, where more than 100,000 civilians, including 50,000 children, remain trapped behind Islamic State lines. Civilians have been urged to evacuate by Iraqi forces, though the Islamic State targets those who try to flee in order to keep them as human shields. UNICEF reports that Islamic State fighters are deliberately targeting children to punish families and deter them from escaping. Humanitarian organizations have warned against the use of explosives with wide-area effects. The UN’s humanitarian chief said between 8,000 and 15,000 civilians are fleeing Mosul each day.

Since President Trump assumed office, the U.S.-led Coalition has been killing civilians in Iraq and Syria at “astounding rates.” Increased civilian casualties largely owe to the battle moving to Mosul and Raqqa. Yet the military has also relaxed oversight, investigation, and accountability on civilian casualties, even as bombings have intensified and more airstrikes have occurred in populated areas. Airwars reports that May was the second deadliest month for Iraqi and Syrian civilians since Coalition airstrikes began in August 2014.

MOST RECENT OIR CIVCAS REPORT (June 2): In the month of April, CJTF-OIR received 43 new reports of possible civilian casualties resulting from Coalition strikes in support of partnered force operations to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Tweet of the week


Senate Debates New AUMF: Debate over a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (or AUMF) began in earnest this week in a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Tuesday. Committee members expressed broad bipartisan support for the Kaine-Flake AUMF proposal, which sets out to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, establish stricter controls on which groups can be targeted by military force, and require a 5-year “sunset provision” for mandatory review. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) expressed concern that the proposal wasn’t narrow enough in preventing the use of force against civilians, a view that was mirrored by Human Rights First.

The hearing comes as the United States has engaged in hostilities against pro-Syrian regime forces at least three times in recent weeks. On Sunday, the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter jet – a move which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted was covered by the 2001 AUMF.

Yet many argue that there is no legal framework for sustained combat against Syria. The use of military force against the Assad regime under the 2001 AUMF would depict the Syrian government as being “associated” with al-Qaeda, thus it cannot be appropriately applied. The United States should not slide into a war without a clear and defensible legal basis, under both domestic and international law.

House Subcommittee Issues NDAA Proposal: The House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee released its portion of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday, revealing a bill that prioritizes funding for drone production and cyber warfare. This subcommittee’s proposal and others have been undergoing markup on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; marks so far have notably included an increase in Army troops beyond the Pentagon request and new shipbuilding efforts.

McCain Pushes for Afghanistan Strategy: Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has issued a rebuke to the administration on Monday over what he perceives as a lack of strategy in Afghanistan. His statement follows President Trump’s delegation of authority over troop presence in Afghanistan to Defense Secretary Mattis last week. McCain states, “Defense Secretary Mattis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that we are not winning in Afghanistan. And yet, six months into the new administration, it still has not delivered a strategy. … If the administration fails to develop a strategy for success, Congress will need to play a greater role.” This call for an increased Congressional role in determining U.S. military strategy mirrors rhetoric used in recent hearings over a new AUMF.

Foreign Military Sales Hearing: The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade heard testimony last Thursday over the status of United States arms sales abroad. Representatives Lieu (D-CA) and Keating (D-MA) again raised concerns over Saudi use of arms against civilians in the conflict in Yemen. The witness, Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, sought to assuage fears, citing recent indications from the Saudi government that they are willing to improve target vetting and compliance with the laws of armed conflict.

On the Congressional Agenda:


Yemen: On Friday, a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed three AQAP militants in the Shabwa province of Yemen.

A report published last week by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies says that the US government has acknowledged only 20% of its reported drone strikes. Its failure to provide information or legal rationales for the strikes makes it impossible to understand the full scope of the government’s drone program and its impact on civilians.


Human Rights Watch reports that UAE-backed local security forces in Yemen have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and abused dozens of Yemenis in clandestine detention sites. An AP investigation found that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen. Though American interrogators were not involved in any actual abuses, obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted by torture inflicted by another party violates the International Convention Against Torture.


Bureau of Investigative Journalism - since 2004 to date (Total Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen)

Civilians Killed: 739 – 1,407
Children Killed: 240 – 308
Total Killed: 6,382 – 9,240
Minimum Confirmed Strikes: 2,935

Airwars - since Aug 2014 to date (Total Iraq and Syria)

Minimum Civilians Killed: 4,118
Coalition Strikes: 22,666
Bombs & Missiles Dropped: 84,296


June 27: USIP – After the ISIS Flag Falls: The Future of Mosul and Iraq; how to expand stabilization efforts to sustain the defeat of ISIS and bolster the security of Iraq

June 30: CSIS - South Sudan: When War and Famine Collide; panel discussion on the challenges in the region and policies the international community should pursue

Image: CIVIC/Maranie Rae Staab

An Open Letter to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster: Strengthen, Don’t Weaken, Drone Standards

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter/Released

Reports suggest that President Trump may be tempted to change or even rescind the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) issued by the Obama administration, which imposed a standard of "near certainty" of no civilian casualties when US forces use lethal force outside of “areas of active hostilities.” The reports say the Trump administration may seek to eliminate the “near certainty” clause out of concern that the rule inhibits operational agility, although no evidence exists to support that claim. The purpose and value of the standard centers on—but also extends well beyond—concern for human life. It helps preserve a basic respect for the rule of law that the United States helped to create and defend for five decades.

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and other organizations have signed the following open letter to National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Jr., urging him to strengthen the existing standards instead of weakening them.  

June 1, 2017

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Jr., USA
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Re: Possible Changes to U.S. Policies on the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations

Dear General McMaster:

We write today to express our deep concern regarding reports that the Administration is considering weakening current policy standards for the use of force in counterterrorism operations.[1] We find these reports particularly troubling in light of the significant increase in the number of civilians who have reportedly been killed in U.S. strikes during the last several months.[2]

We urge you to strengthen and improve, not weaken, the standards for the use of force contained in the Presidential Policy Guidance adopted in May 2013. This policy, which applies outside “areas of active hostilities,” contains some standards that are contrary to what is legally required outside of armed conflict situations – concerns that many of the undersigned human rights and civil liberties groups have previously detailed elsewhere.[3] In light of the concerns, we are deeply troubled by reports of efforts to weaken policies that are intended to protect civilians and the right to life.  As more countries and non-state armed groups around the world acquire armed drones, it is critical that the United States seek to set an example for other nations and demonstrate that its use of force practices adhere to its obligations under international law. To that end, we believe existing protections should be strengthened and improved, not weakened.

Beyond strengthening existing protections, we urge this administration to prioritize transparency and accountability by implementing a consistent and effective investigation and redress policy across all relevant agencies, acknowledging all uses of lethal force, providing detailed strike and casualty information on an ongoing basis, disclosing all applicable legal and policy frameworks and U.S. interpretations, and providing the relevant Congressional committees with sufficient notification and information to enable them to carry out meaningful oversight.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Members of the undersigned organizations would be happy to meet with you or your staff to discuss our concerns and recommendations further.


American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Center for Civilians in Conflict
Center for Constitutional Rights
Coalition for Peace Action
Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Open Society Foundations

Cc: The Honorable Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense

[1] Greg Jaffe & Karen DeYoung., Trump Administration Reviewing Ways to Make It Easier to Launch Drone Strikes, Wash. Post (Mar. 13, 2017), available at;  

Charlie Schmitt, Trump Administration Is Said to Be Working to Loosen Counterterrorism Rules, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2017), available at

[2] See, e.g., Airwars,; New America,; Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

[3] Letter from Human Rights and Civil Liberties Groups to President Obama (Apr. 11, 2013), available at; Letter from Human Rights and Civil Liberties Groups to President Obama (Dec. 4, 2013), available at

Disquiet on the Eastern Front: The Struggle to Protect Civilians in Ukraine

OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka

By Jay Morse, Senior Military Advisor

The 400-km contact line separating Ukraine from separatist-controlled areas of the Donbass Region is a staggered line of checkpoints, villages, and soldier fighting positions. Unlike other conflicts where CIVIC works—the amorphous conflict zones of northeast Nigeria, for example—the border in eastern Ukraine is a bright line of separation, with the Ukrainian military on the west and Russian-backed separatists on the east in what Ukraine refers to as the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Non-Government Controlled Areas, or Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone.

The civilians along the contact line are, of course, those who suffer the most. They endure massive property damage and the separation of families, but they also face personal dangers as well. Exchanges of artillery and gunfire continue every night, and people crossing at checkpoints have to deal with soldiers from both sides. These civilians face an uncertain future, and so does Ukraine as a pro-democracy, pro-Western, and anti-authoritarian country.

Though the intensity of the conflict has lessened, this is by no stretch a dormant war. Nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have died since 2014, and an uptick in fighting at the end of January 2017 caused as many casualties in just a few days as the monthly average for 2016—compounding a particularly difficult winter that left more than 20,000 residents of Avdiivka, a city in the southeast near Donetsk, without heat or water. And though the conflict itself is largely confined to the “contact line,” civilians throughout Ukraine have been affected. The war has forced nearly 1.7 million people from their homes, and the overall economy continues to struggle. Thus, how the government in Kyiv handles civilian harm is pivotal.

CIVIC first researched civilian harm in Ukraine in 2016, releasing the report We are Afraid of the Silence and paving the way for our current work assessing Ukraine’s ability to implement CIVIC’s recommendations. Ukraine, for its part, is already taking steps to improve government soldiers’ interactions with civilians. In April 2017, the Ministry of Defense’s Civilian-Military Cooperation of the Armed Forces (CIMIC) hosted a two-day conference, attended by more than 20 domestic and international organizations, to discuss its ability to implement “Regulations on Preventing Human Losses Among Civilians,” an ambitious plan how to better address civilian harm, specifically in the military operations in the east.

The Regulations call for a comprehensive approach to prevent and address civilian harm, as well is setting up a Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team (CCMT) that would include members from the Ministry of the Interior, Security Service, Border Guard Service, and Armed Forces. Though the government has not yet taken steps to implement the Regulations, the fact that the government has put the concept in writing and is sharing the plan with external organizations is a promising step, and shows that Ukraine is willing to acknowledge that civilian harm is a problem.

Here is where CIVIC can help the Ukrainian government better protect its civilians. By using the Regulations and the CCMT as starting points, CIVIC hopes to help Ukraine better assess civilian harm through investigations and analysis that can then be shared with commanders along the contact line. Understanding how civilians are harmed is just the first step; Ukraine must take this understanding, change practices, and then ensure that all military units understand how to implement these new practices.

CIVIC has already established a cooperative relationship with CIMIC, as well as with international organizations such as the UN Humanitarian Response Protection cluster, Office of Security Cooperation-Europe, and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. By also leveraging the local expertise of the many civil society organizations (CSO) that work in the area, CIVIC will help develop and implement the best possible policies, practices, and procedures—all of utmost importance to help ensure transparency and credibility of government practices. CIVIC is already working with Foundation 101, a CSO monitoring how military personnel treat civilians at contact line checkpoints.

The future of the conflict in Ukraine may be uncertain. But protecting civilians better—and doing so consistently and transparently—will help set the framework for a peaceful and secure future, whatever that may ultimately look like.

Photo: Civilians crossing a bridge in Stanystia Luhanska on Jan. 16, 2016. (OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka)

CIVIC MENA Director in Prestigious ICRC Journal: Learning from ISAF and AMISOM

We're really excited to have Sahr Muhammedally publish a paper in the International Review of the Red Cross edition, "War in Cities." In it, Sahr examined lessons learned from the AMISOM and ISAF missions in Somalia and Afghanistan, respectively, and how these lessons can be applied by armed actors to better protect civilians.

Abstract: Both the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's security assistance mission to Afghanistan – have recognized the importance of reducing civilian harm, and adopted policies and practices that restrict the use of certain weapons in populated areas. ISAF commanders issued a number of tactical directives that restricted the use of certain air-delivered weapons, and AMISOM developed an indirect fire policy limiting the use of artillery and other indirect fire munitions in populated areas. This article examines both ISAF and AMISOM policies and practices to reduce civilian harm in populated areas and explores how these policies strengthened adherence to international humanitarian law and illustrated new ways in which armed actors can take feasible precautions and prioritize civilian protection.

Download and read the full report here.

Remembering a Friend and Ally of CIVIC: Photographer Chris Hondros

April is a tough month for CIVIC's family and friends. Every April 16, we remember our founder and inspiration, Marla Ruzicka, who was killed in Baghdad in 2005. And on April 20, we pause to remember her friend, and friend of CIVIC, award-winning photographer Chris Hondros.

Like most war photographers, Chris was no stranger to danger. He was a restless soul, never able to stay put for very long. That restlessness drew him to cover most of the world's major conflicts beginning in the late 1990s and made him a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You've likely seen his images on the front pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and many others.

On April 20, 2011, Chris and his friend, Tim Hetherington, were on assignment in Misrata, Libya, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near them, killing them both. It was a crushing shock to all their friends and families.

Chris was passionately devoted to documenting how conflict had harmed civilians, and his images of civilians struggling to survive amidst bullets and bombs gave us all an immediate understanding of the gravity of war. CIVIC has been blessed to have permission to use his images to raise awareness of their suffering.

We miss Chris, but we haven’t forgotten his passion or his mission to document the cruelty of conflict that afflicts civilians every day of the year. Your work lives on, Chris.