Rights group: US downplays civilian drone fatalities

Obama administration admits that drone strikes have killed civilians but limits the number to between 64 and 116.

Unmanned Predator drone in Iraq
Watchdog groups claim that the Obama administration does not know how many civilians it has killed [Getty Images]

The White House has said that up to 116 civilians have been killed by drone and other US strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya since Barack Obama took office in 2009, a figure that has been slammed by watchdog groups as an underestimation, which suggests that the real figure could be as high as 1,100.

Published by the director of national intelligence on Friday, the report said that between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, the United States carried out 473 strikes, which killed up to 2,581 “combatants” and anywhere from 64 to 116 civilians.

The civilian casualties disclosed in the report were from nations not recognised as “battlefields”, and did not reflect US air attacks in “areas of active hostilities” such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.

Watchdog and rights groups have long claimed that the US administration does not know how many civilians it has killed and does not  do enough to prevent civilian casualties when carrying out counterterrorism operations.

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Reprieve, an international human rights organisation, said that the US government’s previous statements about the drone programme have proved to be false by its own internal documents.

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It said that the Obama administration has “shifted the goalposts on what counts as a ‘civilian’ to such an extent that any estimate may be far removed from reality”.

“In US drone operations, reports suggest all ‘military aged males’ and potentially even women and children are considered ‘enemies killed in action’ unless they can ‘posthumously’ and ‘conclusively’ prove their innocence,” it said.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that anywhere from 492 to about 1,100 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002.

Shortly after the report was published, Josh Begley, a research editor at The Intercept published a list of 212 civilians killed in Pakistan alone.

Al Jazeera cannot independently verify the casualty figures.

In October, an eight-part investigation published by The Intercept as  “The Drone Papers” , reported that 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia were not the intended targets.

The investigation, which included a cache of secret military documents, suggested that strikes are often carried out on “thin evidence” and the majority of those killed are not the intended targets. The report contradicted claims made by Obama on May 2013 that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured”.

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Seeking to create a precedent for his successor, Obama signed an executive order on Friday that details US policies to limit civilian casualties and makes protecting civilians a central element in US military operations planning.

The order requires an annual release of casualty estimates. It says the government should include “credible reporting” by non-government groups when it reviews strikes to determine if civilians were killed.

But the directive won’t necessarily be binding on the next president, who could change the policy with an executive order of his or her own.

The US drone programme has been criticised by several former high-ranking government and army officials. In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, Michael Flynn, the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, called it a “failed strategy” that was “creating more enemies than [it is] removing from the battlefield”.

“When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” the retired three-star general told Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera’s Head to Head.

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Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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