Transparency and the Civilian Cost of Drone Strikes by Lee Ciocia

The purported precision of drone strikes has led some U.S. officials to tout it as the most humane form of American military force in the Middle East. The lack of reliable data on civilian casualties from drone strikes should call this claim into question.

International law sets a clear standard for the protection of civilians during wartime. Article 51 of the Protocol Additional to the Fourth Geneva Conventions states that “The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.” The importance of such a protection has never been as relevant as in the past few years, particularly as it pertains to the civilian cost of US drone strikes. In a country where accountability should be king, the American public deserves to know the outcomes of drone strikes that its government conducts, especially when drone strikes kill civilians and consequently violate international law.

The uncertainty surrounding the civilian death toll from drone strikes is not a new concern. In 2012, Columbia University released a study on the accuracy of death toll figures from three tracking organizations. The study, which examined reporting on drone strikes conducted in Pakistan during 2011, pointed out several flaws in the counting process that can distort the true number of innocent victims from the strikes. Perhaps the most glaring flaw in the process is that tracking organizations often have to base their figures off of other people’s research. Typically, tracking organizations get their data from major media outlets, major media outlets get their data from freelance journalists in the field, and freelance journalists get their information from local villagers or unnamed witnesses. But these two groups of people may not have an accurate picture of the situation on the ground, because the victims of drones can be hidden and because terrorist organizations can coerce witnesses to stay silent or provide false information. Freelancers with accurate civilian casualty figures are routinely ignored by major media outlets if other journalists don’t provide corroborating reports.

Because tracking organizations face enormous difficulties in collecting reliable data on civilian drone deaths, the US government should provide the data instead. Of course, the government probably isn’t keen to advertise the true number of civilians who have died due to drones, but at the same time, the American people have a right to know: therefore, the statistics should be made available via a FOIA request 12 months after the strike took place. In this way, the public has timely access to drone strike casualties without the government having to divulge sensitive and potentially politically toxic information too soon.

Until the government makes the true number of civilian casualties available, the American public cannot properly assess whether or not drone warfare is truly the most humane form of US military force in the Middle East. The US is a liberal democracy, and therefore owes its citizens accountability without severely compromising national security. Releasing accurate figures on the civilian death toll of drone strikes would be a welcome step in the direction of greater accountability.

Lee Ciocia is the Policy Director and a nominee for Policy of the Year in the 2015 10 Ideas series.