US Only Recognized A Fraction Of Civilian Deaths In Middle East

A new report focuses on the last 15 years of US counterterrorism strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia

A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Sanaa, Yemen. — REUTERS
Jun 13, 2017 at 3:03 PM ET

The U.S. has only acknowledged a fraction of the drone strikes and civilian casualties in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, according to a new report.

The report, which was released on Tuesday by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, found that the U.S. has only recognized about 153 of the 700-plus strikes conducted in those countries since 2002. While independent monitors have counted at least 400 civilian casualties in those countries from 2009 to 2016, the U.S. has reported only 120 during that same period. The report added that victims’ families in those countries have received no explanations, presidential apologies, or compensation for the loss of their loved ones.

“Almost none of the families of the hundreds reported killed by the U.S. have received any justice, or even acknowledgement,” Waleed Alhariri, one of the authors of the report and director of the U.S. Office of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said in a statement. “The U.S. government must act now to recognize the harm it has caused these people and enable a real debate about the true cost of its counterterrorism practices.”

While the report found that transparency “improved slightly” under former President Barack Obama, who ramped up America’s drone warfare program from 2010 to 2016, Alhariri also noted of “dramatic increase in U.S. strikes in Yemen” since President Donald Trump assumed office. Alhariri said that Trump, whose administration recently carried out its first strike in Somalia, has made transparency even more vital. The report found that data on strikes in Pakistan remain “almost wholly unacknowledged,” while data about some strikes in Somalia and Yemen has been available since 2014 and 2016, respectively.

The question of transparency isn’t the only issue facing Trump, as civilian casualties have also increased under the Trump administration in its strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Though U.S. operations have been carried out for three years, figures suggest that nearly 60 percent of all casualties recorded have occurred in the first three months of Trump’s presidency.

“The heightened risk of abuse under President Trump makes transparency more critical than ever,” Alex Moorehead, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said in a statement. “Transparency deters wrongdoing and encourages adherence to the law. The government must explain what it is doing to protect civilians and prevent unlawful killings.”

Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said that while public pressure “eventually forced successive administrations to be more transparent about their targeted killing practices,” it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will roll back such trends.

“So far we’ve seen an uptick in civilian casualties since Trump took office, along with an inadequate investigation mechanism into civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria,” Prasow told Vocativ in an email Tuesday, “suggesting it may well reverse course and be even less transparent than previous administrations.”