Over the past decade, the United States has claimed broad authority to carry out drone strikes across the world, even in places far from the battlefield. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. acknowledged killing between 2,867 and 3,138 people in strikes that took place in countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.

Although in the waning days of his presidency, Obama took some steps to improve transparency about drone strikes, including providing the total estimated death toll, a new report by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies says that the U.S. is still lagging in providing a full accounting of its drone program. Among other failures, the report, titled “Out of the Shadows: Recommendations to Advance Transparency in the Use of Lethal Force,” says that the U.S. has only acknowledged approximately 20 precent of its reported drone strikes — failing to claim responsibility or provide details in the vast majority of cases.

Meanwhile, the drone program is intensifying. Since President Donald Trump took office earlier this year, the rate of drone strikes per month has increased by almost four times Obama’s average. Yemen in particular has been a target of many of these operations, with between nine and 11 strikes hitting the country this year, along with 81 other covert attacks by U.S. forces, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The authors of the new report say that the government’s failure to provide information or legal rationales for its strikes is making it impossible to understand the full scope of the government’s 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,” said Alex Moorehead, of the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, highlighting the failure of the government to provide details about cases in which drones have been used for targeted killings. “When we talk about official acknowledgment, we are talking about specific information about individual strikes, which is what matters to people who have had loved ones killed.”

The estimated number of civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes varies widely, with some independent estimates recording hundreds of civilian deaths, while the U.S. government often claims that figures run only into the dozens. The U.S. military has also been criticized for policies like “signature strikes,” in which individuals have been killed based on their status as “military-age males” in areas where U.S. drones are operating. These policies are alleged to be responsible for cases in which weddings, funerals, and other communal gatherings have been bombed in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

“There is a difference in how Western civilians are treated versus non-Western civilians,” Moorehead said. “Of all the civilians who have been killed in these strikes, only the two Westerners who were killed in a 2016 strike have ever received any formal acknowledgement, apology, and compensation from the government.”

Locals in Yemen have alleged that, in recent months, drone strikes carried out by the Trump administration killed civilians on numerous occasions. One strike reported last month in Yemen’s Shabwah Province allegedly targeted a car full of men with no existing links to terrorist groups, as well as several innocent bystanders. Despite such incidents, Trump has promised measures that would further loosen targeting standards for drone operators, likely putting civilians in even greater danger. Many Yemenis say that the anger and grief inflicted by these strikes is outweighing any perceived counterterrorism benefit — and even driving some local people into the arms of Al Qaeda.

“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 U.S. government,” said Waleed Alhariri, director of the Sana’a Center’s U.S. office and one of the co-authors of the report. “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 for al Qaeda.”

The secrecy of the drone program has made it difficult for civil liberties organizations in the U.S. to provide a full accounting of its impact. More importantly, this secrecy has also made it harder for civilians directly impacted by drones to even understand why they have been targeted. Lacking any ability to find out the details about cases in which they or their loved ones were harmed, Yemeni civilians are generally unable to even obtain recognition, let alone compensation, for the life-changing consequences of these attacks. That those targeted often come from poor and remote regions of the country only makes it harder for them to obtain justice.

“The U.S. public is not aware what is happening in this program. They need more transparency and they need to know the truth,” said Alhariri. “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 U.S. military policy in Yemen.”

Top photo: Unmanned aerial vehicle MQ-9 Reaper at the Holloman U.S. Air Force Base in New Mexico on June 25, 2013.  - The Intercept, 13/6/2017

European Parliament resolution on the use of armed drones (2014/2567(RSP))  
The European Parliament,
–   having regard to the reports on the use of armed drones by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of 28 May 2010 and 13 September 2013, and by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism of 18 September 2013,
–       having regard to the statement made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 13 August 2013 on the use of armed drones,
–       having regard to the hearing of 25 April 2013 on the human rights implications of the use of drones, organised by Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights jointly with its Subcommittee on Security and Defence,
–       having regard to its study of 3 May 2013 on the ‘Human rights implications of the usage of drones and unmanned robots in warfare’,
–       having regard to the Council conclusions of 19 and 20 December 2013 on preparations for a programme of next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS),
–   having regard to Rule 110(2) and (4) of its Rules of Procedure,
A. whereas the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS, hereinafter ‘drones’) in extraterritorial lethal operations has increased steeply over the past decade;
B.  whereas unknown numbers of civilians have been killed, seriously injured or traumatised in their daily lives by drone strikes outside declared conflict zones;
C. whereas in the event of allegations of civilian deaths as a result of drone strikes, states are under the obligation to conduct prompt, independent investigations and, if the allegations are proved correct, to proceed to public attribution of responsibility, punishment of those responsible and provision of access to redress, including payment of compensation to the families of victims;
D. whereas Article 51(2) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions states that ‘acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited’;
E.  whereas drone strikes outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council constitute a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country;
F.  whereas international human rights law prohibits arbitrary killings in any situation; whereas international humanitarian law does not permit the targeted killing of persons who are located in non-belligerent states;
G. whereas seven Member States (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain) have signed a letter of intent with the European Defence Agency (EDA) tasking it to draw up a study on joint production of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) craft, which can be used to strike military targets or for surveillance of migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea, thus starting work on a European RPAS;
H. whereas research and development studies associated with the construction of drones, military and civilian, have been supported with EU funds, and whereas it is planned that this will continue in the future;
1.  Expresses its grave concern over the use of armed drones outside the international legal framework; urges the EU to develop an appropriate policy response at both European and global level which upholds human rights and international humanitarian law;
2.      Calls on the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Member States and the Council to:
(a)    oppose and ban the practice of extrajudicial targeted killings;
(b)    ensure that the Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states;
(c)    include armed drones in relevant European and international disarmament and arms control regimes;
(d)    ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention;
(e)    commit to ensuring that, where there are reasonable grounds for believing that an individual or entity within their jurisdiction may be connected to an unlawful targeted killing abroad, measures are taken in accordance with their domestic and international legal obligations;
(f)     support the work and follow up on the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism;
3.      Urges the Council to adopt an EU common position on the use of armed drones;
4.      Calls on the EU to promote greater transparency and accountability on the part of third countries in the use of armed drones with regard to the legal basis for their use and to operational responsibility, to allow for judicial review of drone strikes and to ensure that victims of unlawful drone strikes have effective access to remedies;
5.      Calls further on the Commission to keep Parliament properly informed about the use of EU funds for all research and development projects associated with the construction of drones; calls for human rights impact assessments in respect of further drone development projects;
6.      Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the Vice‑President / High Representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy, the European External Action Service, the parliaments of the Member States, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and the UN Secretary-General. - European Parliament Website