Targeted Killing: Drones

Human Rights Watch Responds

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, October 26, 2013, 9:25 AM

Not to be outdone by Amnesty International, which responded earlier to my post on reports by Amenesty and Human Rights Watch, Letta Taylor of Human Rights Watch writes in with the following response as well:

In his posting "Thoughts on the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports," Benjamin Wittes notes that the both organizations “raise serious questions” about certain US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. He then says that they “overstep” the facts. But it is Wittes who oversteps.

Wittes faults the Human Rights Watch report, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda,” which I wrote, for not providing a representative sampling of targeted killings. Our report does not claim to be representative. Rather, it documents in detail six cases raising important legal concerns. Had the Obama administration made public even the most basic details of its operations, we would have investigated more of the 80 estimated US targeted strikes in Yemen since 2009. Lack of transparency is one reason specific incidents have not received the public attention they deserve.

Wittes asserts that President Obama in his May 2013 counterterrorism speech “announced changes in policy with respect to drone strikes” (emphasis in original). He argues that therefore we should not have compared the attacks in our report, which predate the speech, to those policies. But the White House Fact Sheet accompanying that speech—posted on Lawfare—states that those policies “are either already in place or will be transitioned into place over time.” Our report noted this, and our letters to the administration asking which policies took effect and when, sent well in advance of publication, have received no response.

Adherence to the policy guidelines—such as capture rather than kill—could help reduce civilian deaths. But our analysis is not built around these guidelines, as Wittes asserts, but instead on the obligations of the United States under applicable international humanitarian and human rights law.  Ultimately US actions will be judged by adherence to these legal requirements.

Wittes describes our call for “criminal prosecutions as appropriate” as a way of accusing the Obama administration of war crimes.  Actually, we called for “disciplinary action or criminal prosecutions as appropriate.” This language reflects the obligation of all states to investigate and take appropriate action in response to credible allegations of serious violations of international law.  We hope that Wittes doesn’t reject investigations because, as he writes, these are “standards of law the United States does not accept.”

Differences aside, Wittes agrees with the overarching point in both the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports. The cases we document, he writes, raise questions including “What went wrong, why, and how we can minimize the chances of such disasters in the future?” We’re delighted that we share this common ground.