A ‘wrongful death’ lawsuit that was presented to U.S. courts of appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit by Yemeni national, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who claims his relatives were collateral damage of a U.S. drone strike, has been thrown out after a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel on Friday, June 30th.
Jaber initiated the lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2015, after two of his family members, his brother-in-law and father of seven, Salem bin Ali Jaber, and his nephew, Waleed bin Ali Jaber, were killed in August 2012 by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Salem, a known anti-extremism Imam and his nephew Waleed, were meeting with three extremists, allegedly upon the extremists’ request, in the eastern Yemeni village of Khashamir. As a result of the Hellfire missile drone strike, all five were killed, which was targeting the three identified insurgents, according to The Guardian.
Jaber’s lawsuit did not seek financial reparation, instead, he sought an apology from the U.S. government for the deaths, as well as an official pronouncement that the lethal 2012 strike was a breach of international law.
U.S. drone strikes are carried out by the military, under authorization of the Executive Branch. It is “the Executive, and not a panel of the D.C. Circuit, who commands our armed forces and determines out nation’s foreign policy,” the court ruling stated. The decision of the judicial panel, reinforcing a previous decision made by a lower U.S. court, ruled that the court lacked the authority to make judgement over U.S. government military decisions and actions. Additionally, the court ruled that as President and commander-in-chief of the military, congressional oversight is the only mechanism through which such executive power can be influenced.
Though agreeing with her fellow judges on the overall decision, in a separate statement one of the three involved judges, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, critiqued the efficacy of the checks and balances Congress exerts on presidential power in the U.S. Judge Brown noted that “…congressional oversight is a joke, and a bad one at that.” She was highly critical of the “deeply flawed” fact that the judiciary lacks the authority to challenge the national security or foreign policy decisions of the president and Congress, as reported by Reuters. “If judges will not check this outsized power, then who will?” Judge Brown asked.
Since 2002 the U.S. has engaged in drone strikes in Yemen, in varying frequencies, according to data from the independent and non-profit organization, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). These strikes form part of U.S. counterterrorism initiatives in Yemen to combat Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the extremist group that is particularly active in the conflict that has plagued Yemen. TBIJ reports that over 250 drone strikes have been carried out in Yemen since the initial 2002 strike, which has resulted in between 888 and 1,226 casualties.
Drone strikes, a method of warfare, which was significantly ramped up under the Obama administration and continues to be utilized in foreign warfare under President Trump. In addition, drone strikes are seen by advocates as a cost effective tool for removing perceived threats to US security, namely insurgents and affiliates of known terror networks, such as Al-Qaeda. Aside from being carried out in Yemen, drone strikes have also been utilized by the U.S. as part of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Yet, critics of this method of warfare point to the high number of civilian casualties caused by such strikes and argue that drone strikes pose serious challenges to fundamental human rights and international law. In particular, the use of ‘signature strikes,’ which involves carrying out strikes based on perceiving targets as displaying certain ‘signature’ behaviours or actions thought to be in line with those of an insurgent, are being criticized for increasing the chances by which an innocent civilian could fall victim to such lethal weapons. Furthermore, the indiscriminate killing drone strikes allow are said, by some commentators, to foster anti-U.S. sentiments and, therefore, bolster, rather than reduce, the numbers joining the ranks of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups across targeted countries.
With that said, far greater transparency is needed to understand the real impact drone strikes are having on the ground in the countries the U.S. is utilizing such warfare. Such transparency is needed both domestically, in terms of the utilization of drones as a component of U.S. foreign policy and military activity, but also internationally, so that there is a universally recognized framework by which drones can be safely employed while minimizing the human cost. Though drone technology allows for advancements in military or intelligence capabilities, such developments should be treated with utmost caution in order to safeguard the lives of civilians and innocent bystanders that are all-too-often caught in the crossfire of such conflict. Drone warfare is certainly a contentious topic of international security, and one only needs to look at cases, such as that of the Jaber family to realize the potentially devastating impact such weapons can have on civilian life.
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