Questions arise as US reveals drone death toll

Questions arise as US reveals drone death toll
3 min read
02 July, 2016
A much anticipated report revealing numbers of those killed in the controversial US drone programme since 2009 has been questioned with rights groups doubting the 'low numbers'.
Years of pressure from rights groups demanded better accounting of military actions under Obama [Getty]

Up to 116 civilians were killed in President Barack Obama's controversial drone strikes initiative in countries including Yemen Pakistan and Africa, the White House revealed.

An estimated 473 strikes – conducted outside the US' principal war zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – had killed 64-116 civilians between 2009 and 2015, a report from the Director of National Intelligence revealed for the first time on Friday.

Years of pressure from rights groups demanded a better accounting of military actions under Obama led to the release of information that has for years been kept classified among officials in Washington.

The move to release the much-anticipated report was welcomed by the American Civil Liberties Union but said was too narrow in scope and raised concerns on the legality of the lethal force used by the government abroad.

"It's hard to credit the government's death count, which is lower than all independent assessments," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project.

"The government continues to conceal the identities of people it has killed, the specific definitions it uses to decide who can legitimately be targeted, and its investigations into credibly alleged wrongful killings."

Critics have long alleged that the US drone strikes kill far more civilians than claimed but Friday's revelations caused further questions to be posed, with even the DNI acknowledging the possible weakness of its own numbers.

"Although the US government has access to a wide range of information, the figures released today should be considered in light of the inherent limitations on the ability to determine the precise number of combatant and non-combatant deaths given the non-permissive environments in which these strikes often occur," the DNI said in a statement.

The US' drone programme – a key tool of Obama's counterterrorism strategy – has long been shrouded in secrecy. 

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism previously estimated that there were anywhere from 492 to about 1,100 civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002.

Reprieve, an international human rights organisation based in New York, says that the government's previous statements about drone strikes have proven to be false by facts on the ground and the US government's own internal documents.

"But more importantly, it has to be asked what bare numbers will mean if they omit even basic details such as the names of those killed and the areas, even the countries, they live in," Reprieve said in a statement prior to the release on Thursday.

"Equally, the numbers without the definitions to back up how the administration is defining its targets is useless, especially given reports the Obama administration has shifted the goalposts on what counts as a 'civilian' to such an extent that any estimate may be far removed from reality."

Among the data released was an executive order by President Obama that states "civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict."