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End the secrecy: Rights groups urge Biden to restore transparency in drone strikes

US has unique opportunity to increase accountability of armed drone use and reveal civilian death toll, groups say
Former President Donald Trump rolled back guidelines on the use of drone strikes put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Former President Donald Trump rolled back guidelines on use of drone strikes put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama (AFP)

Rights advocates are calling on the Biden administration to reinstate transparency measures and reveal the civilian death toll from its covert drone programme.

Former US President Donald Trump rolled back guidelines on the use of drone strikes put in place by Barack Obama, including a requirement that intelligence officials report the number of people killed in drone strikes outside of war zones.

Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of security with human rights, told Middle East Eye that reversing Trump's drone policies "would be a very easy thing for Biden to do".

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"If the US is killing and injuring civilians in drone strikes anywhere in the world, particularly outside war zones, the American people deserve to know that," she said.

"The new administration needs to confront head-on the destruction and civilian lives claimed by the US drone war and pledge to put a stop to it or all these claims of ending forever wars will ring hollow."

During her confirmation hearing, director of national intelligence Avril Haines said she would advocate for a new order that would report "on strikes taken by and civilian casualties caused by all US government agencies".

Chris Woods, founder and director of the UK-based watchdog Airwars, said Haines' statement was a step in the right direction in increasing both transparency and accountability of the US government's actions.

"We very much welcomed the comments by the new director of national intelligence that she wants to restore that reporting obligation for CIA actions in countries outside of active war zones," Woods said.

Woods noted that the reinstatement of such transparency measures would be crucial in Yemen, where he says there is evidence of an active CIA campaign.

Revealing civilian deaths

Last week, the Pentagon announced that any drone strikes outside of war zones where American forces are operating would have to be reported to the White House for approval, effectively reversing one of Trump's policies that had given the military and the CIA greater authority.

Still, the administration has not indicated whether it plans to reverse any other measures regarding the drone programme, including reporting on civilian casualties.

'The US program of secretive lethal strikes in multiple parts of the world has destroyed lives'

- Hina Shamsi, ACLU

The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had quietly issued a review of its drone policy and was weighing the option of whether to require the government to disclose estimates of how many civilians were killed in US strikes outside of war zones.

In response to MEE's request for comment, the State Department and Pentagon told MEE to refer to the White House.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) national security project, told MEE the ACLU was waiting for "the Biden administration to end these harms".

"Over the last 20 years, the US has taken a war-based policy approach that has resulted in a cascade of human rights and law of war violations," Shamsi said.

"To take just one example, the US programme of secretive lethal strikes in multiple parts of the world has destroyed lives, primarily of people who are civilians, Muslim, Black, and brown.

"These abuses and the secrecy surrounding them only worsened under the Trump administration."

An entrenched drone strike framework

In May 2013, former President Barack Obama released guidelines that restricted the applications in which drone strikes would be appropriate.

The restrictions included the tightening of who could be considered the target of a strike, and assessing that lethal force was the only possible option.

Still, while offering these limitations, drone strikes were able to continue without a long-term strategy. 

Under the Obama administration, the US carried out at least 563 drone strikes during his two terms in office, compared to just 57 under his predecessor George W Bush, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

It's unclear exactly how many strikes were conducted under Trump. However, the TBIJ reported that air strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen during his first year in office.

"The problem is that ultimately, this effort really just sort of entrenched a framework for continuing these legal strikes without sort of a long-term rights-respecting, sustainable strategy for these authorities," Rita Siemion, director of national security advocacy at Human Rights First, said in an interview on WBUR's On Point radio show.

As the Biden administration reviews its current policy, Woods said it was possible to make concrete changes, as the "administration has inherited what we think is the [s]lowest tempo of US military action since 9/11".

"The question for the Biden administration is: does it want to take advantage of this historically [s]low tempo, to make some long-lasting changes and to bring to an end the so-called 'forever war'," Woods said.

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