A coalition of human rights groups is calling on the Obama administration to make good on an executive order issued this summer that requires the United States to investigate when civilians are harmed in lethal operations abroad, including drone strikes.
In a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, the groups pressed for investigations into several specific attacks that occurred on the president’s watch. The letter calls for public acknowledgement as well as “prompt, thorough, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations” into 10 incidents over the last seven years. A dozen groups signed on, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
The letter also calls for the methodology of those investigations to be made public, to include “only those redactions necessary to protect information that is properly classified” and to offer clear explanations for any discrepancies that might arise between the government’s conclusions and those reached by outside parties, including NGOs and journalists.
The executive order that Obama signed requires the government to investigate allegations of civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations, then take responsibility when they occur and provide compensation to the family members of victims.
That order was released alongside a report detailing the government’s estimate of civilians killed in airstrikes outside conventional war zones — part of an effort by the Obama administration to present itself, after years of virtually blanket secrecy in these matters of life and death, as setting a tone of transparency for its successors.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, Obama reflected on the dangers of institutionalizing a regime of secretive borderless warfare executed primarily by drones, and claimed that his administration had done much to rein in “institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies.” He insisted that the decision to pull back the program somewhat “had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up.” But he nonetheless credited “having these nonprofits continue to question and protest” as an influence on reform.
Despite the talk of transparency, the administration still hasn’t responded to many specific, well-documented instances of civilian harm. While estimates vary widely on the total number of civilians killed in Obama-era airstrikes outside conventional war zones — from several hundred to more than 1,000, according the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — the White House has acknowledged just two civilian deaths by name over seven years: those of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, an American and Italian, respectively, who were kidnapped by militants and then mistakenly killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan.
“We understand that since that date the U.S. government has agreed to pay compensation to the family of Giovanni Lo Porto,” the rights groups wrote. “These are welcome initiatives that should be followed in a systematic fashion, which the executive order commits to doing.”
The 10 specific incidents listed in the letter all occurred in two countries — Yemen and Pakistan — and, in total, are alleged to have killed roughly 137 civilians. Most of the operations cited have been widely reported, either by human rights organizations, journalists, or both. While most are suspected to be the result of U.S. drone strikes, one of the attacks, launched on December 9, 2009, was the result of a cruise missile strike fired from a U.S. warship. That attack allegedly killed 14 militants and 41 civilians, including 21 women and children.
In July, shortly after the executive order was issued, Amnesty International invoked it in asking the CIA to respond to the death of Mamana Bibi, an elderly woman, in a strike in Pakistan. The CIA never responded.
Asked about the letter, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said, “We are not in a position to speak to specific operations.”