State Department Human Rights Report Ignores U.S. Role in Abuses

The report is an example of U.S. unwillingness to acknowledge its role in civilians killed during counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

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A protester flashes a peace sign at an anti-drone rally in Karachi, Pakistan. (Reuters).

Late last week--89 days past its legal deadline--the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. The new, user-friendly interface allows you to find and read individual country chapters much more quickly and easily (and might explain the delay). For all its flaws, the report remains a must-read for its reporting and candor. It serves as a generally honest counter to the rosier assessments of U.S. partners and allies' human rights practices.

From my vantage point of trying to understand the Obama administration's policies and practices of target killings, the report is also notable for what it does not include; namely, any mention of U.S. involvement in or responsibility for such operations.

The chapter on Yemen, for instance, has an entire section dedicated to "killings:"

The government also employed air strikes against AQAP and affiliated insurgents in Abyan, with some strikes hitting civilian areas. Although some accused the government of intentionally striking civilians in Abyan, most if not all noncombatant casualties from these bombardments were attributed to a lack of air force training and technical capability.

First, because U.S. targeted killings in Yemen are "covert," the State Department cannot acknowledge American complicity or collusion. But it stands to reason that some, if not a majority, of these air strikes were carried out by CIA or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drones, or even U.S. Navy assets offshore. Even the most careful, discriminate, and "surgical" uses of force can unintentionally kill civilians. According to three Yemeni officials, for instance, two drone strikes earlier this month killed seven suspected AQAP militants and eight civilians.

Second, given the CIA's request to "broaden the aperature" by conducting "signature strikes" against anonymous AQAP militants based on "patterns of suspicious behavior," the number of civilian casualties will only continue to increase. Today, Iona Craig reported meeting a farmer in Abyan, Yemen, who witnessed two separate air attacks that killed twenty-six people. According to the farmer, "They were all local people, many of them friends of mine."

Third, although some of these strikes could have been carried out by Yemeni forces, civilians on the ground are hardly able to distinguish among Yemeni, CIA, and JSOC missiles. It would be difficult to devise a counterterrorism strategy that did a better job at creating a common enemy among victims or neutral third parties.

Fourth, the State Department report implies that additional "air force training and technical capability" (presumably funded by U.S. taxpayers) would prevent civilian casualties in the future. The United States gave $326 million in (overt) security assistance to Yemen between 2007 and 2011, which has had negligible impact on the government's ability to combat AQAP. In that same time period, AQAP has tripled in size and expanded its geographic reach and influence. According to Air Force General Ali Abdullah Saleh Al Haymi, "U.S. assistance was used to kill Yemeni people, not to kill al-Qaeda."

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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