Three years ago last week, a U.S. drone strike hit the small town of Datta Khel in Pakistan. Local business owners and leaders were in the midst of a two-day tribal council meeting, called to address a dispute regarding a chromite mine in the area. Local authorities had been notified about the meeting, which is a traditional forum employed to resolve community conflicts.
As the second day of the meeting commenced, missiles fell from the sky, ripping into the gathered crowd. Shrapnel and rock ruptured outward from the blasts. A new video on the Datta Khel strike from Brave New Films speaks to the havoc wrought by the attack. Though estimates of casualties and injuries vary, a United Nations report released this month states that more than 40 people died in the Datta Khel strike. Another 14 were wounded. The impact of the attack was substantial – a large number of tribal elders were reportedly killed and wounded - and it devastated Datta Khel, as well as the surrounding communities. Pakistani officials strongly condemned the attack, calling it a violation of human rights.
The precise number of civilian casualties, again, varies depending on the source. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has positively identified some civilian deaths. The U.N. report states that “the overwhelming majority of those killed or injured” in the Datta Khel strike were reportedly civilians. Despite media coverage and human rights investigations that covered the Datta Khel strike, the American government has not acknowledged that the strike occurred, or provided any other details on the incident. As such, it remains incredibly difficult to confirm numbers, identities, and other details of the victims of the Datta Khel strike – or any other U.S. drone attacks.
When U.S. military or government officials speak about drone strikes, they do so only in the broadest of terms. They talk about “targets” and “militants” that are “eliminated” by strikes from “unmanned vehicles.” When they are asked about civilian or bystander deaths, they use words like “collateral damage” or “unintended consequences.” These terms are carefully chosen, devoid of emotion to avoid the uncomfortable reality of what they actually mean – but make no mistake, here we are talking about matters of life and death.
That is why we invited civilian victims of drone strikes to share their story with Congress last year. They put a human face on what is so-often referred to as “collateral damage.” Rafiq ur Rehman and his two children traveled all the way to America, from Pakistan, to appear at a Congressional briefing. Rafiq’s mother was killed by a drone strike while harvesting okra from the family’s land. The two children suffered injuries, and one of them explained that he now hates clear blue skies - because that is the best weather for drone strikes.
These people are the “unintended consequences” of drone strikes, the civilian lives that end when the U.S. launches an unmanned missile from the sky – don’t they merit some acknowledgement of, or explanation for, the loss of their loved ones? We believe they do. It’s been three years since the Datta Khel strike. Three years, with no explanation of what happened that March morning. Three years, with no answers, no details, no conclusions.
When civilian deaths have been alleged, as they have been in Datta Khel, the public has a right to understand the merit of these allegations, and the government has a responsibility to tell us the truth. If the U.S. government doesn’t have the answers, then it has a responsibility to find out. It should launch an investigation, and disclose the full findings to the public. We want answers – for better, or for worse.
But this week, the U.S. government did the opposite of that. In fact, it said that it won’t participate in U.N. Human Rights Council negotiations regarding a resolution that seeks greater transparency and accountability in drone strikes. The draft resolution urges States to maintain transparent records on drone strikes, and reportedly encourages independent investigations in incidents where human rights violations have occurred – such as civilian casualties of drone strikes. The resolution will come up for a vote this week, and the U.S. is not expected to support it. That is a mistake.
It’s time for our government to shed some light on its drone practices. Transparency, as uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, is an essential part of our democracy. Americans need the facts – the who, what, when, where, and [most importantly] why – in order to decide if the benefits of these strikes outweigh the negatives. And for the people in other countries, whose lives are so profoundly impacted by America’s drone activities, people like Rafiq ur Rehman and the individuals in Datta Khel, they deserve some closure too.
Transparency, disclosure, and reporting will help accomplish both of these goals. A resolution that calls for these measures is a worthwhile proposal – one that America should seriously consider supporting.
Grayson has represnted Florida's 9th Congressional District since 2013 and serves on the Foreign Affairs and the Science, Space and Technology committees. He represented Florida's 8th Congrssional District from 2009 to 2011. Greenwald, founder and president of Brave New Films (BNF), is an award-winning television, feature film and documentary filmmaker. His most recent film, Unmanned: America's Drone Wars investigates the impact of U.S. drone strikes at home and abroad.