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Transparency needed surrounding administration’s policy changes on use of armed drones

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With the endless stream of reported chaos coming out of the White House these days, it can be hard to keep track of what’s important. The result is that life-and-death decisions made by the Trump administration have gone largely unnoticed – such as an exponential rise in the number of unnamed people it’s killing abroad. Even worse, the government is secretly changing the rules for killing people abroad, and seems unconcerned about any requirements to disclose them.

According to the watchdog group Airwars, there were nearly 50 percent more coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017 than in the previous year, and civilian deaths rose by 215 percent. Amnesty International’s investigations of the recent carnage in Raqqa and in Mosul revealed that hundreds of civilians were killed by U.S. and coalition air strikes.  

{mosads}But the U.S. government is also using drones and fighter jets to kill people that are not in actual war zones, and those get far less attention. Most Americans probably don’t think the U.S. is at war in Somalia, for example, but the United States killed more than 200 people there last year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, dropping bombs via drones or fighter jets. The U.S. claims to be supporting the government of Somalia, but to what end, and under what authority? 

These are just some of the many questions raised by a dramatic increase in the use of lethal force against unknown people who the U.S. deems “militants” or “terrorists,” without any further explanation

Those reports almost always say no civilians were killed. But that’s not necessarily the case.  The Guardian reported in January, for example, that “dozens of civilians have been killed and wounded in Somalia as U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamist militants increase to unprecedented levels,” based on reports from local media, medical staff, witnesses and relatives of victims. Although some of these civilian deaths may have been caused by regional allies targeting al-Shabaab, at least some were reportedly from U.S. aircraft.

After four U.S. soldiers were killed in secret U.S. military operations in Niger, members of Congress expressed surprise that U.S. troops were even stationed in the region. But when U.S. aircraft kill unnamed people in African countries, most don’t seem to bat an eye.

There have been some attempts at enforcing accountability. In legislation passed last year, Congress actually required the Trump administration to report to Congress any changes to the legal or policy framework that governs its use of lethal force by March 12. We know from reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere that the Trump administration has changed its rules, lifting restrictions that were imposed by the Obama administration to reduce civilian casualties. The change in rules reportedly allows the U.S. to target low-level suspected militants outside war zones, even if it’s not clear who they are and they do not appear to pose an imminent threat. That’s not actually allowed under international law.

Human rights groups have been writing letters and seeking meetings with the administration about this change in policy since it was first reported last June. Yet U.S. officials have consistently failed to respond.

Now, about a dozen groups have taken their concerns public, issuing a joint statement in an effort to explain how new rules dangerously defy international law, and hoping to prevent their normalization. International law is often interpreted by how it’s applied globally, so it’s critically important to make sure that a U.S. interpretation that undermines the law’s intent – to protect civilians – isn’t widely accepted and applied.

It is, indeed, a matter of life and death. As the groups explain:  “We are deeply concerned that the reported new policy, combined with this administration’s reported dramatic increase in lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia, will lead to an increase in unlawful killings and in civilian casualties.” 

Daphne Eviatar is director of Security with Human Rights at Amnesty International USA.

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