Delivering video testimony from Yemen to a congressional hearing Wednesday, Yemeni youth and human rights activist Baraa Shiban made clear what's at stake with the U.S.'s ongoing shadow drone war. Speaking of Yemenis who had witnessed, either directly or through video footage, the carnage wrought by a recent strike that killed at least 12 civilians, Shiban said, "What does the U.S. mean to these people now? A blasted car, and gruesome footage of dead families?"
Wednesday's ad hoc drone hearing, called by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is a dim flicker of light shed against dense shadows surrounding the Obama administration's lethal drone strike program. While lawmakers including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have made dubious claims about the precision of drone strikes and limited civilian casualties, and while CIA Director John Brennan has vowed that reports of civilian death are seriously investigated, rarely is testimony from those who've seen the first hand plight of drone struck regions heard on Capitol Hill. Written and video testimony was released to Salon in advance of the hearing.
Shabin, who works for human rights charity Reprieve as their Yemeni coordinator, stressed the troubling fallout of drone strikes in Yemen -- countering claims by Brennan during his confirmation hearing that the CIA program was not harming the U.S.'s international reputation. Shiban told the hearing:
You have already heard that drones lead to civilian casualties. But that bland label doesn’t convey the magnitude of these mistakes, or just how damaging dead innocents are to the US’ interests in Yemen.
One reason the strikes harm U.S. and Yemeni interests is that they send the message that U.S. either can’t or doesn’t bother to sift friend from foe.
Last summer, a strike in Khashamir in southeast Yemen killed an anti-al-Qaida imam Salem bin Ali Jaber, and his 21-‐year-‐old nephew Waleed. Just days before he was killed the imam had denounced al-Qaida’s hateful ideology.
I spoke to the imam’s relative Faisal, who said the family had feared Salem might be assassinated by militants. They had no idea he’d be killed by a US drone. And while Salem’s family only want justice, others will certainly exploit this sad story and persuade desperate Yemenis that revenge is the only way.
Another reason strikes are more damaging than the U.S. realizes is that, while the U.S. may not be acknowledging or discussing dead civilians, Yemenis are.
... The farmers from Sabool showed us videos of people pulling charred bodies from the wreckage. They were scarcely recognizable. But besides the horror of it all, one thing struck me about the footage I watched. In it, you could see many Yemeni farmers gathered around the carnage filming exactly the same thing.
This is how stories of US injustice percolate through Yemen. Terrible images like those I saw can take on a life of their own. U.S. aid reaches these areas rarely, if ever... This is not a pointless popularity contest for America. Every lethal mistake the U.S. makes is kerosene for an insurgency. And it all comes at a critical time for Yemen.
While visa issues meant the Yemeni activist delivered his testimony via video, witnesses testifying in person included representatives from Amnesty International, the Open Society and human rights clinics at both Columbia and NYU Law Schools who have all worked on the ground in areas targeted by U.S. strikes. Sarah Knuckey, NYU lawyer and special adviser to the U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, stressed concerns about international law potentially abrogated by U.S. strikes.
Knuckey noted, as I have here in the past, that the problem surrounding the strikes is falsely reduced to a debate over drone technology. She testified that "The technology certainly raises new issues, but concern is primarily around the opaque and unaccountable manner in which drones and other weapons have been used to carry out killings, around the quality of intelligence relied on to inform targeting decisions, unaccounted for civilian harm, the undermining of international law, and whether current practices are effective strategy."
Importantly, Knuckey also decried the government's use of "vague and sometimes expansive" legal concepts in justifying their targeting methods (which, when it comes to signature strikes, for example, push the meaning of "targeted" to its very limits):
What is concerning about current US practice and policy is that only very general legal justifications are offered for highly contentious killing practices, and in some cases, the legal concepts employed appear to be stretched beyond long-accepted understandings.
Particularly concerning are broad or ill-defined interpretations of terms which regulate targeting, including an “elongated” concept of imminence, “associated forces” and “directly participating in hostilities.”
If other states, following the US precedent, claim for themselves the same expanded rights to attack their alleged enemies on their own say-so, without even having to legally justify or account for their actions, this presents a serious risk of leaving everyone less secure.
Amnesty's Zeke Johnson urged that lawmakers reject Obama's "radical" and elongated definition of immanence, and in general release far more information about drone killings. Johnson, while calling for judicial review of how lethal strikes are carried out and justified, rejected the suggestion floated in recent months in Congress that a a secret pre-strike kill court be set up. He noted that "the proposal by some to set up a secret pre-strike kill court should be rejected out of hand. It would be a false fix that would serve only to entrench human rights violations. Such a court would be inherently unfair and would show that the 'imminence' test for the use of lethal force was not satisfied."
Shiban's video testimony is available to view in full here: