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Obama Apologized for the Drone Killings of Two Western Victims. What About Everyone Else?

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama
Hina Shamsi,
Director, ACLU National Security Project
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May 13, 2015

President Obama’s recent response to the tragic deaths of two civilians, U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto, in a January 2015 “targeted killing” strike in Pakistan, was remarkable and unprecedented — yet it should not have been.

The president publicly announced the men had mistakenly been killed as a result of a U.S. strike, and he apologized for their deaths. He promised a thorough independent review of their killings. And he said their families would be compensated. All of this was exactly the right thing to do.

But the contrast between the administration’s response to the deaths of these Western — and white — civilians and those of the many hundreds of non-Western civilians who have died in the administration’s lethal force program is stark and glaring. No other victim’s family has received official acknowledgement and an apology, let alone been promised an investigation or compensation.

That’s fundamentally unfair, and it increases the hostility against the United States in countries where the CIA and the Pentagon carry out their lethal strikes.

Today, we and other leading rights groups wrote to the president, urging him to “adopt the same approach to all other U.S. counterterrorism strikes in which civilians have been injured or killed — regardless of their nationalities.” And we provided him with examples of 10 U.S. strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, with which the administration should start its investigation and acknowledgment. Each of these strikes has been investigated by rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Foundations, and some by journalists.

All show credible evidence of civilian harm.

They include the first known U.S. cruise missile strike in southern Yemen, in December 2009. That strike, which killed 14 alleged “militants,” also killed at least 41 civilians, including 21 children and nine women, five of whom were pregnant at the time. We and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the legal basis for the strike, any investigation into it, and information about any compensation to victims.

The government has refused to provide that information.

Our list of 10 strikes also includes one in Pakistan, in October 2012, in which a woman named Mamana Bibi, aged about 65, was killed while gathering vegetables in her family’s fields in a village in North Waziristan. Amnesty International and Reprieve investigated that strike and found that nine children were injured in it, including several of Mamana Bibi’s grandchildren.

Of course, the Obama administration — and Congress and the courts — must do much more to ensure meaningful transparency about and oversight over our government’s “targeted” killing program. Together with Columbia Law Professor Sarah Knuckey, I recently wrote about the urgent need for robust oversight, and what a full, transparent, outside review of the entire lethal program should look like.

What’s also important, and what our letter to President Obama today emphasizes, is that there should be no distinction between the government’s response to the killings of Western and non-Western civilians. As we said of non-Western civilians who have died:

The families of those individuals are still seeking redress and accountability, and the continued refusal of your administration even to officially acknowledge their losses compounds their suffering.

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