Obama order looks to curb civilian deaths in U.S. airstrikes and drone attacks

For the first time, the Obama administration has released the number of enemy combatants and civilians killed in drone attacks and airstrikes in some countries. The President also issued an executive order aimed at reducing civilian casualties. John Yang talks with Naureen Shah of Amnesty International USA and Sarah Holewinski, former executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

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    Today, the Obama administration revealed new information that sheds light on the reality of modern warfare, the number of civilians accidentally killed in U.S. airstrikes.

    John Yang has the story.


    Today's release is the first time the White House has said how many terrorists and innocent civilians it believes have been killed by airstrikes, including by drones. Between 2009 and 2015, the administration says it launched 473 airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa.

    It estimates that as many as 2,581 combatants, and as many as 116 noncombatants were killed. Now, these numbers do not include airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, what the administration calls areas of active hostilities.

    A new executive order has also been issued, with the aim of decreasing the number of civilian deaths.

    We get two views on all this Sarah Holewinski. She was recently with the U.S. mission to the United Nations. And before that, she was the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the number of civilian casualties. And Naureen Shah is the director of the Security and Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA.

    Sarah, Naureen, thank you both for joining us.

    Naureen, let me start with you.

    The first time these numbers have been released, what do you make of these numbers?

  • NAUREEN SHAH, Amnesty International USA:

    Well, this is a remarkable shift.

    We have been asking for exactly these numbers for years. But the numbers are extremely low, and they come along with a claim of extraordinary precision. For the people whose cases Amnesty International has documented, it's anything but precise.

    We're talking about kids struck by shrapnel, a woman killed in front of her grandchildren, families losing breadwinners. These are names. They're individuals. They're not numbers. And we need to hear more acknowledgment from the Obama administration of that.


    I should say, the Obama administration acknowledges that these numbers are estimates. They say that the NGOs, non-government organizations, like yours actually have more access to research these numbers.

    But, Sarah, the policy has been and will continue to be that no airstrikes if there's a near certainty that a noncombatant would be killed. But we have, on average, out of these airstrikes, one in every four of these airstrikes has claimed a noncombatant life. What does that say about this system and the precision that Naureen was talking about of the system?

    SARAH HOLEWINSKI, Former Executive Director, Center for Civilians in Conflict: Yes, precision is a really tricky thing.

    Precision means that you are hitting the thing that you think you're going to hit. I am going to hit this folder. I am going to hit this glass of water. It doesn't mean that that folder or the glass of water is actually the thing that we think it is.

    So if you are striking from the air with a drone, for example, you may be hitting a person that you thought was something, but is actually something else. And sometimes those are civilians.


    And also today, we have an executive order laying out policy, setting in policy for the first time how the United States is going to carry out these attacks in the war on terrorists.

    Naureen, what do you make of this new policy, the new executive order?


    It's extremely important.

    And there's a lot of commitments in this executive order that can help us move away from an unaccountable drone killing program that's really meant that we were on a battlefield, where the United States was claiming the authority to kill in secret and with impunity.

    What we have to see from the Obama administration is that they start to make good on those commitments, and that includes acknowledging particular people killed. That's in the executive order, and it's remarkable. But we have to see the administration follow through on that and not just leave this at the end of the conversation.


    Sarah, what's new in this order?


    There are actually quite a few new things.

    So, first and foremost, I want Americans to know that we are the only country, America is the only country to have a policy like this on civilian protection. That's pretty remarkable. And we haven't had it before. So that's the newest thing about this.

    A lot of the executive order is about just enforcing best practices that the U.S. military has been doing for a number of years. But the new thing, the new several things, include, for example, working with our partners, so allies and partners, Nigerian military, Burmese military, you know, militaries that we're equipping and supporting around the world, to make sure that they are also paying attention to civilian protection and learning the lessons that America did.

    We also have this very boring-sounding thing called an interagency working group that comes out of this. It may be boring-sounding, but that's exactly how you make progress within the U.S. government.


    Naureen, what are the measures? What are you going to look for to tell whether progress is being made in this?


    We're going the look for whether the Obama administration breaks the silence on people who are killed in drone strikes, that they identify civilians, but who aren't Americans. And it's actually astounding that at this point several years into the Obama administration they have never specifically named an individual who was Pakistani or Somali or Yemeni who was a civilian.

    There's a double standard here. We have seen American civilians and an Italian civilian who was named, but not a Pakistani civilian or a Yemeni. And that double standard has to end. I think that's in the executive order. I think we are going to have to press the Obama administration to make good on its aspirations and its clear commitments.


    Sarah, another part of this executive order is it says that, every year, the administration is going to put out the numbers that they put out today, the number of combatants and also noncombatants killed by airstrikes.

    But the first one is due May 1. The president won't — the Obama administration won't be there May 1. This executive order could be changed by the next president. So what does this really mean? What is really going on?


    Well, it's an amazing step from this administration to have a uniform policy on civilian protection.

    I'm not as worried about it being an executive order. I think that was the way that President Obama felt like he could make the biggest impact on this issue that he cares about a lot. The next president that comes in will have a fight on his or her hands if they think that they are going to get rid of this executive order, certainly from, I hope, the American public, but also from civil society and also from allies around the world who are taking this as a sign of U.S. leadership and are glad to see it.


    Naureen, are you concerned the fact that they break out these numbers, that they aren't telling us what's going on in what they call the areas of active hostilities, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria?


    Well, what we're really concerned about is the administration providing some numbers and that being the end of the conversation. It needs to be the start of a conversation, so that we don't have this sanitized view. It can't be that you provide a data dump and then that's the end of the inquiry.

    We need Congress to be asking questions about not only these numbers, but numbers of people who are being killed in Iraq and Syria and other places. And we just need a lot more scrutiny over the way the U.S. uses lethal force and the way that every government uses lethal force. There has just been a record of people being able to kill civilians and others without accountability, and it's something that we see across the word.


    I guess, also, the question, also, Sarah, is, are these airstrikes with drones and with manned aircraft, are these effective ways of fighting terror?


    It's one way of fighting terror. It's certainly not going to counter terrorism everywhere.

    And what's important about the numbers that were released today and this executive order is that it is one step toward the American public and the Obama administration and whatever administration comes next to understanding what the impact and efficiency of those drone strikes are.

    We currently don't know. What is the impact on population? Now we're getting to the point where we're having that discussion. It's a very important discussion to have.


    Very good.

    Sarah Holewinski, Naureen Shah, thank you for coming in today.


    Thank you.



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