Press release

New Report Details Civilian Harm from U.S. Drone Strikes in Yemen

April 13, 2015
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NEW YORK—U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have continued to cause civilian casualties in Yemen even after President Obama declared that they would only be approved if there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

A new report from the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Yemen-based Mwatana Organization for Human Rights details nine cases in which civilians, including children, were killed or injured by drone attacks between May, 2012 and April, 2014. This included four strikes that came after President Obama’s May 2013 speech outlining his administration's policy on the use of drones.

Against the background of a steady deterioration in the security situation in Yemen, the report highlights outstanding questions about the role of drone strikes in Yemen, where they form part of a counterterrorism strategy that has been repeatedly endorsed by the White House.

The report, “Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen,” also raises questions about several other elements of U.S. counterterrorism policy announced in May 2013, including that targeted killings are only ordered against individuals who pose “a continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and only when those individuals cannot be captured.

Abdulrasheed al Faqih, executive director of Mwatana, said:

“In incident after incident, eye-witnesses told us of watching civilians being burned alive, or of losing parents, siblings and children in U.S. drone strikes. Civilians wanted to know why they had been targeted when they were not affiliated with al-Qaeda. They wanted justice.” 

The nine cases documented by the report resulted in 26 civilian deaths and injuries to an additional 13 civilians, according to evidence collected by the researchers and interviews with survivors of the attacks and relatives of the victims in five governorates: al-Baeda, Sana’a, al-Jaw, Hadramout, Marib, and Dhamar. 

This includes the January 23, 2013 strike on a house containing 19 civilians in Silat al-Jarraah village, and the September 2, 2012 strike in which 12 civilians, including three children and a pregnant woman, were killed.

The testimonies gathered indicated that survivors and the relatives of victims of the attack have in most cases received no official acknowledgment or adequate compensation for the deaths and injuries caused, and that there has been no credible investigation into the circumstances of the attacks.

The White House has said that the “near-certainty” standard applies outside “areas of active hostilities.” Although the White House has not clearly defined which areas this covers, the “near-certainty” standard reportedly applied to Yemen at the time of the attacks documented.

Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer who heads the Justice Initiative’s work on human rights abuses related to counterterrorism, said:

“The first hand testimonies of civilians directly affected by strikes cast serious doubt on the extent to which the U.S. is complying with its own guidance as well as with international law. These testimonies compel a fundamental re-examination and reform of U.S. drone policy as well as the policies of other governments that participate in U.S. drone strikes. Without such reform, as drones proliferate, there is a danger that other states will adopt and entrench the problematic aspects of the U.S. model.”  

The incidents documented in the report also cast doubt on President Obama’s assertions that drone attacks were only used when there was no possibility of capturing suspected al-Qaeda members, and that the attacks only target “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”. In all of the cases, there was no indication from the U.S. or Yemeni government that the individuals targeted posed a threat to Americans (as opposed to Yemeni interests).                                             

The interviews also raised questions about the broader effectiveness of drone strikes as a counter-terrorism weapon, with survivors and relatives of victims asserting that the strikes would only help al-Qaeda by generating outrage and a desire for revenge against the U.S. and Yemeni governments. In a typical reaction, a brother of Ali Saleh al-Qaweli, a 32-year old school teacher killed in an attack on January 23, 2013, argued:

“These strikes targeting innocent people do not serve Yemen and America.  They only incite larger numbers of people to hate America, and confirm that America does not target militants who pose a threat to its security, but attacks the innocents.”

The Open Society Justice Initiative and the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights are urging the governments of the United States and Yemen to:

  • Publicly acknowledge the numbers and identities of civilians killed and injured by U.S. airstrikes in Yemen.
  • Ensure that U.S. targeted killings in Yemen comply with international law.

They are urging both governments and others involved in supporting targeted killing operations to:

  • Conduct effective investigations into all credible allegations of unlawful civilian casualties associated with U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, including those documented in this report; prosecute and impose disciplinary measures and/or penalties where appropriate; and publicly disclose the findings.
  • Provide prompt and meaningful compensation for civilian harm associated with U.S. airstrikes in Yemen.

The two organizations are also urging the U.S. government to publicly disclose the full legal basis for U.S. targeted killings, including those documented in this report, and to make public the May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance relating to targeted killings.

They also call on other governments who have reportedly participated in U.S. drone strikes to publicly disclose their policies and practices relating to such participation, to conduct effective investigations, and to provide meaningful reparations for civilian harm caused by their unlawful participation in such strikes. Recent reports have implicated NATO and countries including Australia, Denmark, Djibouti, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom in U.S. drone strikes.

In addition, in February 2015 the U.S. released a new policy for the export of U.S.-origin drones, as part of a broader effort to work with other countries to “shape international standards” for the use of drones while restricting recipient states “to use these systems in accordance with international law.”

This report’s findings cast doubt on whether the U.S. is complying with its own policy guidance as well as with international law. Under these circumstances, the proliferation of U.S. drones could lead to a proliferation of civilian casualties of the kind described in this report.

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