Human Rights Watch has warned that US President Donald Trump’s reported new policy for the targeted killing of terrorism suspects increases the risk of civilian deaths.
The Trump administration should immediately publish the proposed new rules on lethal drone strikes outside conventional war zones and strengthen protection for civilians, the New York-based human rights organization said Wednesday.
“Trump’s reported changes for targeting terrorism suspects will result in more civilian deaths with less oversight and greater secrecy,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counter-terrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The US should be increasing civilian protections off the battlefield, not dismantling them,” she said.
Trump recently approved new rules that dismantle much of the Presidential Policy Guidance on targeted killings issued in 2013 by then-President Barack Obama, The New York Times reported in September.
The Trump administration has neither denied nor publicly acknowledged the policy changes.
The report said that the revised rules scrap the Obama-era requirement that anyone targeted for attack outside of conventional battlefields must pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to American lives.
This change gives US troops greater latitude to strike individuals it considers low-level members of terrorist groups, rather than primarily targeting high-level leaders.
“The change also means the US may strike in countries where armed groups are present but not actively plotting attacks against the US. These changes are problematic because the US is loosening rules for taking human life in circumstances in which it is uncertain that the US is engaged in an armed conflict,” Human Rights Watch said.
Trump did not rescind the Obama administration’s requirement for “near-certainty” that no civilians would be killed or injured in a drone operation, the report said. But Human Rights Watch field research during the previous administration found that the US did not always follow this requirement during targeted killings.
Even when the US makes efforts to limit civilian casualties, such operations can result in civilian deaths because of factors such as faulty intelligence or unpredictable events on the ground, Human Rights Watch said.
“The US contends that it can use military force anywhere against targeted groups without regard to whether its attacks take place in an area of active hostilities, arguing that it is engaged in an armed conflict without geographical boundaries with groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda. That interpretation is overly broad and dangerous,” it added.
The US says it killed as many as 3,100 people from 2009 to 2016 in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, but some human rights groups argue that the figure is higher.
The US claims the airstrikes target members of terrorist groups, but according to local officials and witnesses, civilians have been the victims of the attacks in many cases.