Posted by on May 07, 2013 in Blog
AAI held a congressional briefing on Friday entitled “Drones: A Slippery Slope on Lives and Liberties” which served as an important discussion that not only highlighted the high number of civilian casualties as a result of targeted strikes, but the lack of oversight over the Administration’s drone policy, and the expansive interpretation of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legal framework the Administration uses to support the use of lethal force.
Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama has used drones as a major national security tool. The administration has drastically expanded the drones program, specifically authorizing 307 strikes in Pakistan alone, which was six times more than the number of strikes administered during both terms of President George W. Bush. Additionally, the program accelerated from an average of one strike every 40 days to one every 4 days by mid-2011. Despite the rapid acceleration of the program, however, there is little oversight by Congress of the administration’s drone policy.
AAI’s timely briefing on drones followed a hearing on the topic most recently held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights (Read AAI’s testimony here), featuring legal experts and Yemeni youth activist Farea Al-Muslimi, who delivered a powerful testimony on the impact of drones on his home village of Wessab, Yemen. Farea’s personal perspective is one that has been missing from this debate. As Farea pointed out, the drone strikes are likely doing more harm than good to our standing in the international community and relations with potential allies. What is disturbingly missing from analysis provided to the public is data on the number of retaliatory actions by violent extremist organizations (VEOs), changes in messaging tactics by VEOs as a result of civilian deaths, and information about changes in recruitment numbers of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
During AAI’s congressional briefing, Professor Naureen Shah, the Associate Director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School, spoke at length about the civilian impact of drone strikes. According to Professor Shah we have seen US drone strikes evolve from a tool used in limited circumstances to go after high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders to a tool relied on in an increasing number of countries to go after and target individuals with tenuous links to violent extremist groups deemed to be an imminent threat to the US. In the last decade alone, drone strikes have killed an estimated total of 2,600 to 4,700 people. Proponents of the use of drones assert that drone strikes are precise, but Shah cited a study from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute which found that the number of Pakistani civilians killed in drone strikes is “significantly and consistently underestimated.” Additionally, between 2004 and mid-April 2013, although the drone campaign in Pakistan killed 55 militant leaders, the 55 deaths account for only 2% of all drone-fatalities in Pakistan. Similarly, in Yemen, the 34 militant leaders killed by drone strikes accounts for only 6% of all total casualties of strikes.
Professor Jennifer Daskal’s remarks focused primarily on the expansive interpretation of the legal framework (AUMF) underlying the administration’s drone policy. The AUMF was signed into law four days after the tragic events of 9/11, and specifically authorizes the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the attacks that occurred on Sept 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the US by such nations, organizations, or persons.” The AUMF’s language, however, restricts the use of force both with respect to those who could be targeted and with respect to the intent of the use of lethal force. AUMF clearly restricted the use of lethal force against those culpable for the 9/11 attacks and to prevent future attacks against the US.
There needs to not only be greater transparency about the administration’s drone policy, but also better clarity on the legal justification and basis for targeted strikes. Further, the administration needs to take additional steps to ensure that civilian populations do not continue to compromise the overwhelming majority of casualties.
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