Photo above: The home of Gul Nawaz in North Waziristan. Nawaz was watering his fields when he heard the explosion of drone missiles: "I rushed to my house when I heard the blast. When I arrived I saw my house and my brother's house completely destroyed and all at my home were dead...Yes, the drone strikes hurt the Taliban... but sometimes innocent people also become the victims of such attacks." Photo by Chris Rogers/Center for Civilians in Conflict.
The use of lethal drones outside of full-scale military operations in remote areas and under a veil of secrecy raises ethical, legal, and practical challenges for civilian protection. Covert drone strikes carried out by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen have killed and injured civilians, though how many is unknown. Anecdotal evidence also suggests psychological trauma, displacement and increased cycles of violence in areas where drones operate.
No one outside a small group of US officials knows who is considered a target or by what definition, what type of civilian protection training drone operators receive, what procedures exist for tracking and investigating civilians harmed by drones, and what accountability mechanisms exist for civilian harm that is caused. While some classification is to be expected in a state’s national security interest, these basic attributes in the use of force are unnecessarily opaque. For civilians trying to go about their daily lives, not knowing what behavior can make them a target for US drones is a source of constant fear.
There is currently no accurate measure of the true extent of civilian harm, since drone strikes occur in remote areas often inaccessible to human rights groups and journalists. Unlike in Afghanistan, the US military is not present in these places to conduct formal investigations into the aftermath of a strike, leaving civilians harmed without recognition or amends for their losses. The inability to fully understand how drones are effecting the civilian population is reason to question both claims of minimal civilian harm and drones as effective counterterrorism.
Based on first-hand research in Pakistan, the Center calls for increased oversight, accountability, and transparency for the remote operation of drones. In particular:
- The Administration should make public its justification for lethal force carried out through the drone program including how civilians are defined, how combatants are identified, if and how civilian casualties are investigated, and to what extent drone operators are trained in civilian protection issues, including distinction.
- All drone operations should be transferred from the CIA to the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD has a more transparent chain of command and operational procedures, maintains a self-reflective process of lessons learned on civilian harm, has a system of accountability, and is subject to greater oversight by Congress.
- Congress should exercise its oversight powers to the fullest and request information from the Department of Justice, the CIA, and JSOC on the justification for lethal force carried out through the drone program, how targets are identified, what precautions are taken to minimize civilian harm, how civilian harm is assessed, and what accountability measures are in place.
- The United States should create a program to monitor and respond to incidents of civilian harm in its counterterrorism operations involving the use of lethal force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military responded to civilian losses and made amends. In places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, recognition and amends for cases of civilian harm by drone strikes do not exist which has exacerbated the anger amongst the civilian population towards the US.
Reports & Briefs
The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions
Part of the Modern Issues in Conflict Series
Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan
Part of the Countries in Conflict Series
Press & Policy
Written Testimony Submitted to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights (April 30, 2013): The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing
Opinion, CNN Opinion: Bring Drones out of the shadows
Opinion, Huffington Post: Drones: An Outlier in a Transparent Presidency
Optionion, Huffington Post: Help for Civilians Harmed in America's Drone Wars
Press Release: Civilian impact of covert drone operations overlooked
In the News: BBC Newshour Special: Drones
In the News: Wired/Danger Room: Not Even the White House Knows the Drones’ Body Count
Letters: Statement of shared concerns regarding U.S. drone strikes and targeted killings