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July 01, 2016

Obama Administration to Release Airstrike Casualty Data, Executive Order

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today welcomed the Obama Administration’s forthcoming release of the estimated number of combatants and noncombatants killed in airstrikes outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The casualty assessments cover January 2009—December 2015 and will be accompanied by an Executive Order that memorializes internal procedures for limiting civilian casualties, as well as the standards the administration applies when using force in armed conflict or in self-defense.

Human Rights First has long advocated for the administration to release key information included in these disclosures, which are a major step in the right direction. Increased transparency is essential for meaningful public debate about the lawfulness and effectiveness of the U.S. targeted killing program for countering terrorism. As a next step, Human Rights First urges the Obama Administration to release the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) and demonstrate that the U.S. targeted killing program is consistent with the rule of law. 

"Today’s casualty data release and issuance of the executive order is a concrete step in the right direction, but more information is still needed for the public to meaningfully evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of the targeted killing program,” said Human Rights First’s Rita Siemion. "For data on the number of non-combatant deaths to be meaningful, the administration should clarify how it classifies individuals as combatants, name the armed groups those classified as combatants are alleged to be members of, specify the legal basis for using lethal force, and provide strike locations and dates. We urge the Obama Administration to release the Presidential Policy Guidance and demonstrate that the U.S. targeted killing program is consistent with the rule of law."  

While a sign of progress, the information to be released today fails to provide enough information to allow the public to assess the harm to civilians, the legality of individual strikes, or the overall effectiveness of the targeted killing program, especially as the data only covers airstrikes outside Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many more civilians have been killed in strikes in those countries, where the vast majority of airstrikes have occurred. Moreover, the data does not include any information about civilian deaths from ground operations.

Human Rights First previously noted that confidence in U.S. counterterrorism operations depends on full clarity about the governing policies and the measures taken to minimize harm to civilians. President Obama has previously said that before he leaves office he hopes to set up an internal structure for implementing his drone policy and to institutionalize the process for releasing strike data on an annual basis. 

Human Rights First notes that the Obama Administration should commit to ensuring that the U.S. targeted killing program is consistent with the rule of law and should increase transparency and oversight of the program by releasing the Presidential Policy Guidance on the use of force during counterterrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities and other Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinions on the legality of targeted killings with minimal redactions. The administration should also transfer authority for conducting strikes from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense, and conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the impact of lethal strikes on national security and human rights. 

“The use of lethal force, including by drone, is permitted in certain limited circumstances,” said Siemion. “But using lethal force outside the bounds of the law—without demonstrable long-term strategic benefits and without a sufficient commitment to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law—threatens both human rights and the national security of the United States."

For more information or to speak with Siemion contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.