This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
A decade after weaponized drones were first used in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen the US Senate Judiciary Committee had its first hearing on April 23 questioning the legality of the targeting killing program including who is being killed and where. Senator Durbin also asked, “What moral and legal responsibility does the US have to acknowledge its role in targeted killing and make amends for inadvertent destruction and loss of life particularly when missiles kill or injure innocent people?” This is an important question that needs answers from the administration.
Helping civilians harmed during hostilities is not unprecedented. The United States military investigates civilian harm in Afghanistan–just across the border from Pakistan–and has offered explanations, apologies, and monetary payments to those suffering losses. That practice goes back to combat operations in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, but it doesn’t exist when it comes to the covert use of drones in counterterrorism operations. Recognition of harm, an explanation of what happened, and assistance to victims and families does not compensate for the loss of a loved one, but it can help rebuild a lost home, pay for medical care, or simply show that an apology is sincere. Explanations answer unanswered questions, dignify losses and, in cases where the explanation is public, can remove local suspicion that civilians unintentionally harmed in a strike were militants.
The fact is that civilians are harmed by drones, despite the absence of official details. US officials have occasionally stated that civilian casualties are “exceedingly rare,” but human rights and media groups estimate casualties to be far higher. Research by my organization Center for Civilians in Conflict, and others, as well as news media, shows that civilians also suffer non-lethal harm from drone strikes, like injuries, damage to their homes, psychological trauma, and displacement.
Regardless of the type of harm and how many have been harmed, civilians harmed by drones outside the conflict in Afghanistan receive no recognition, no apologies, and very little help. Drone victims in Pakistan told us that they were owed apologies and compensation. Yemeni journalist Farea al-Muslimi who testified at the Senate hearing on drones talked about negative impact drone strikes were having in Yemen and requested apologies and assistance from the US to those harmed.
CIA director John Brennan at his Senate confirmation hearing acknowledged that: “Where possible, we also work with local governments to gather facts, and, if appropriate, provide condolence payments to families of those killed.” He also said that the US “should acknowledge it publicly” when civilians were killed. This is the first time an administration official acknowledged the importance of responding to civilians harmed by drones, but there is no evidence that the US actually does respond to any instance of civilian harm.
Admittedly, the covert and remote nature of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia makes it difficult to recognize and assist civilians harmed. And civilians themselves have nowhere to go to seek help. But, the US must recognize that acknowledging and responding to this harm is both an ethical and strategic imperative–to not do so undermines American commitment to justice and humanity. A Pakistani, Somali, or Yemeni civilian harmed by an American drone should not be ignored simply because recognizing their losses is a challenge. Instead their losses should be investigated with the cooperation of the local government–with additional information considered from civil society–and, if losses are verified, assistance should be provided.
The US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that civilian harm occurs despite precision guided missiles and careful targeting. When that civilian harm was ignored, anger built among the population and the Afghan-US partnership was called into question by President Karzai. US military leadership enacted tactical changes to mitigate harm to civilians, and importantly began more robust efforts to investigate, acknowledge and make amends (through monetary payments) for civilian losses. These lessons are now captured in the US Army Manual on Civilian Casualty Mitigation (ATTP), but it is not clear that the ATTP applies outside of Afghanistan or to drone strikes in counterterrorism operations.
This would be a mistake. Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan must not simply sit on a shelf collecting dust, but should also be applied to counterterrorism operations involving drone strikes. Questions about the efficacy of drone strikes and blowback are coming from all quarters including civilian populations,diplomats, and the military. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan in February 2013 noted, “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world. … (T)he resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
There’s obviously a lot at stake, and Americans have a right to know the legality of using weaponized drones to kill and the impact of these operations. But Congress should also ensure that civilians receive the recognition and help they deserve as it reflects America’s commitment to humanity and dignifies civilian losses caught up in America’s drone wars.
Sahr MuhammedAlly is a Senior Legal and Amends Advisor at Center for Civilians in Conflict