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.1Greg Jaffe & Karen DeYoung., Trump Administration Reviewing Ways to Make It Easier to Launch Drone Strikes, Washington Post (March 13, 2017); Charlie Schmitt, Trump Administration Is Said to Be Working to Loosen Counterterrorism Rules, New York Times (March 12, 2017) 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.2See, e.g., Airwars; New America; Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
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.3Letter from Human Rights and Civil Liberties Groups to President Obama (April 11, 2013); Letter from Human Rights and Civil Liberties Groups to President Obama (Dec. 4, 2013) 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
Center for Civilians in Conflict
Center for Constitutional Rights
Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)
Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Cc: The Honorable Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense