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More than 100 groups demand Biden end 'unlawful' drone strikes

Wednesday June 30, 2021
By Rebecca Kheel

"We write to demand an end to the unlawful program of lethal strikes outside any recognized battlefield, including through the use of drones," the 113 organizations wrote in a letter to Biden obtained by The Hill ahead of its release Wednesday.

"We appreciate your stated commitments to ending 'forever wars,' promoting racial justice, and centering human rights in U.S. foreign policy," they added. "Disavowing and ending the lethal strikes program is both a human rights and racial justice imperative in meeting these commitments. Twenty years into a war-based approach that has undermined and violated fundamental rights, we urge you to abandon it and embrace an approach that advances our collective human security."

The letter was organized by the Human Rights and Security Coalition. It was co-signed by 77 human rights and anti-war groups in the United States and 36 groups based abroad, including in countries where the United States has conducted the drone strikes at issue, such as six groups from Yemen, three from Somalia, two from Pakistan and one from Libya.

"The U.S. has been killing people for nearly 20 years in Yemen, but to this day it has not adequately investigated civilian deaths and injuries, or clearly recognized the severe harm caused to families and communities," Radhya al-Mutawakel, chair of the Yemen-based Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, said in a statement. "The Biden administration should break with these damaging practices, and ensure thorough investigation and accountability for harms that have occurred."

Human rights groups have long denounced drone strikes against what U.S. officials describe as terrorist targets, particularly those outside of traditional combat zones such as Afghanistan or Iraq, as extrajudicial killings that also indiscriminately slay civilians.

The Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, expanded the drone program in its first term, but then tightened restrictions on the strikes in its second term. Former President Trump then loosened the rules for drone strikes when he was in office.

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden initiated a review of the policy on drone strikes and commando raids outside of conventional war zones and imposed temporary limits on such strikes.

While the strikes are still allowed, the limits require additional high-level reviews and other bureaucratic hurdles before the strikes are approved.

Confirming a report in The New York Times, which first reported on the review and limits, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in March there was "interim guidance that was issued to ensure that the president has full visibility on proposed significant actions, which the National Security Council will review."

"It's all part of an effort with a new administration coming in to take a broader review of national security issues across the board, including the legal and policy frameworks that govern these kinds of matters and these kinds of operations," Kirby said.

In their letter to Biden, the organizations acknowledged his review, calling it an "opportunity to abandon this war-based approach and chart a new path forward that promotes and respects our collective human security."

The organizations also sought to frame the issue as a matter of racial justice, an area in which Biden has also pledged to make progress.

"This program is a centerpiece of the United States' forever wars and has exacted an appalling toll on Muslim, Brown and Black communities in multiple parts of the world," they wrote.

"It has caused lasting psychological trauma and deprived families of beloved members, as well as means of survival," they added. "In the United States, this approach has contributed to further militarized and violent approaches to domestic policing; bias-based racial, ethnic and religious profiling in investigations, prosecutions and watchlisting; warrantless surveillance; and epidemic rates of addiction and suicide among veterans, among other harms. It is past time to change course and start repairing the damage done."


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