The report by Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies notes that while the US has taken and continues to take a lackadaisical approach to drone strike reporting, the program is intensifying — ever since Donald Trump took office, drone strikes per month have increased by almost four times Obama's average. War ravaged Yemen has been a common target of these operations, with at least 11 strikes hitting the country as of June 2017, along with 81 other covert attacks by US forces.
Such figures represent merely what can be conclusively confirmed, however — US failure to provide comprehensive information on the strikes makes it impossible to understand the full scope of the "targeted killing" program, as well as its impact on civilians.
"For years, the only way we knew anything about individual strikes was from media reports or individual statements about strikes from government officials. When we talk about official acknowledgement, we are talking about specific information about individual strikes, which is what matters to people who've had loved ones killed," commented Alex Moorehead of the Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute.
Under Barack Obama's leadership, the US acknowledged killing around 3,138 — many of them innocent women and children — in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but the report suggests the toll is considerably higher. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates civilian deaths run into the hundreds, while government officials claim the total is but dozens.
The report harshly condemns the US policy of "signature strikes" — in which individuals are killed based on their status as "military-age males" — in areas drones operate. This indiscriminate approach for killing has produced massacres at weddings, funerals, and other communal gatherings. Despite such incidents, Trump has promised to loosen drone operator targeting standards, inevitably placing civilians in even greater danger.
"The heightened prospect of abuse and civilian harm under the new US administration makes transparency more important than ever." https://t.co/Rr2SgFq28C— Letta Tayler (@lettatayler) June 14, 2017
There is also an evident disparity in the treatment of innocent Western civilians slain in drone strikes and innocent indigenous civilians — in a 2016 strike in Pakistan that killed American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, both aid workers, their families received full apologies and compensation from the US government. No such recompense was forthcoming for Pakistani and other non-combatant victims of the same attack.
Such is the secrecy of the program, it's difficult for rights organizations anywhere in the world to fully document the extent of the campaign. Lacking any ability to ascertain the details of cases in which they or their loved ones have been harmed, civilians in countries affected the drone program are unable to even obtain recognition, let alone reparation, for the earth shattering consequences of drone attacks.
That’s bc, despite the precision of the system, drones still rely on human intelligence. And there's the ‘oops factor’. From CIVIC/Columbia: pic.twitter.com/8aEDAAWEEu— Evan Cinq-Mars (@ecinqmars) June 9, 2017
Yemen presents a particular problem, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's experiences in the field demonstrate. While the organization publishes the most detailed data available on drone strikes, a spokesperson explains monitoring events in Yemen presents a particular challenge, as the CIA, US special forces, Yemeni air force and the UAE and Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition have all carried out strikes in the country. As such, it is often unclear who is responsible for attacks or even whether it is the work of a manned plane or drone — and often, they are forced to partially or largely rely on the testimony of tribal leaders and eyewitnesses to construct their picture.
"The drone program in Yemen has inflicted a lot of civilian deaths that have not been investigated, acknowledged, or even taken into consideration by the US government. In some cases weddings have been targeted, which has resulted in a lot of public anger from ordinary people towards the United States and has helped recruitment to al-Qaeda," said report co-author Waleed Alhariri, Director of the Sana'a Center's US office.
The Bureau also acknowledges its data significantly underestimates drone strikes in Afghanistan, as most air attacks go unreported in open sources — with the country subject to frequent US air raids ever since 2001, yet another strike is simply no longer news.
This lack of clarity extends to the identities of those slain in such attacks — of the thousands killed by drones since the program commenced, under a third have ever been identified by name, and quite who the majority of the dead are remains a mystery.
"The public is not aware what is happening in this program. They need more transparency and they need to know the truth — but Yemenis who have been impacted also need to know why they've been targeted. People have died, lost the ability to work and lost family members they relied on. They've been ignored and they feel helpless in the face of US military policy in Yemen," Alhariri concluded.