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US ‘failure’ to come clean over assassination drone policy

More than a dozen human rights groups are calling on US President Donald Trump to come clean over “secret” changes made to a controversial assassination policy.

The joint statement released yesterday comes ahead of a US congressional deadline to explain its policy before next Monday. It describes the Trump administration’s “failure” to explain the changes made back in October last year when it referred to killings as outside “areas of active hostilities”. The lack of transparency is a “dangerous step backwards”, they warned, and not allowing crucial scrutiny of the lawfulness of operations conducted and redress for victims of human rights violations.

“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,” the statement, signed by American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reprieve and a number of other organisation, read.

“With the rapid proliferation of armed drone technology, the United States should not roll back policies intended to improve compliance with international law and reduce civilian harm. Rather the United States should set an example for the rest of the world on adhering to international law and ensuring that governments are transparent and accountable when using lethal force.”

Killing outside conflict zones

Four significant concerns were raised, with the first being the “unlawful targeting outside of armed conflict” zones. US drone strike practice has shown that strikes are taking place in countries where the US is not officially at war, including Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The undisclosed policy as it stands permits strikes “more broadly than international law permits”. The law only permits use of force outside conflict zones when there is a “strictly necessary” situation to prevent a concrete, specific and imminent threat to life.

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In addition to this, there is a continued lack of clarity on the “capture requirement” under international law and US policy. As it stands, if the US assassinates individuals when there was an opportunity to capture, such strikes would be a violation of human rights law.

The human rights groups also highlighted the beefed-up secrecy that is “undermining the rule of law by circumventing public oversight, due process, and accountability for civilian casual tiers”. The Trump administration has given the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) an expanded role in executing drone strikes with “less review” from the White House.

Lack of accountability

Amid the increase of civilian casualties in drone attacks, the human rights groups are “unaware” of any “investigations” looking into the unlawful killings, “remedy, or condolence payments for victims of violations and their families”, the statement read.

The loosening of the US drone policy has equated to expansive use of force leading to heightened concern for human rights globally.

The US has reportedly killed some 10,677, including 1,551 reported civilians since its inception of drone strikes in 2002, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). In February alone, the US reportedly killed 27 people, although it is likely to be higher, as TBIJ was “unable” to obtain details on three strikes.