Administration Urged to Provide Transparency on Use of Force, Civilian Casualties

 Human Rights First, urged President Trump to use congressionally-mandated reporting requirements as an opportunity to provide much-needed transparency on the United States’ use of force and its impact on civilians. The letter came ahead of the March 12 deadline for the administration to provide a report to Congress on the rules governing the use of military force, including any changes made to legal interpretations or governing policies since President Trump took office. The administration is also required to provide a report on civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations by May 1.
“Robust transparency is in the national security interest of the United States. Transparency enhances the legitimacy of U.S. actions by enabling the United States to broadcast successes; restore credibility when mistakes occur; and correct erroneous allegations of civilian casualties that fuel enemy propaganda and recruitment, and can turn allies, partners, and local populations against the United States,” wrote Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino. “When the legal basis or governing policies for military operations are kept secret, many assume the worst about U.S. actions. This lack of clarity can feed into the propaganda of nefarious actors and cause complications when partnering with allies.”
Human Rights First was instrumental in the passage of a provision in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that required the president to submit a report to appropriate congressional committees on the legal and policy frameworks for all uses of military force, including lethal targeting, military detention and prosecution, the authority to use force in or against other nations, and the administration’s interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The report must also include the legal, factual, and policy justifications for any changes made to these frameworks since President Trump took office. Any subsequent changes must be reported to appropriate congressional committees within 30 days of being made. This provision facilitates important congressional oversight of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Human Rights First offered the following recommendations for the U.S. government:
  • Provide Congress and the American people with as much information as possible on the laws, policies, and practices guiding the use of military force by the United States and the impact of U.S. operations on civilians;
  • To the greatest extent possible consistent with national security, provide the congressionally-mandated report on the legal and policy frameworks for counterterrorism operations and the report on civilian casualties in unclassified form and publicly release the unclassified reports;
  • Ensure that the report on the legal and policy frameworks for counterterrorism operations reflects a similar breadth and depth of information as the 2016 Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations and include thorough explanations of any changes made since the 2016 report was released; and
  • Ensure that the report on civilian casualties takes into account relevant and credible all-source reporting when determining whether civilians have been harmed by U.S. military operations and provides through explanations of the measures taken to investigate and mitigate harm to civilians. The report should also provide additional details about the impact of U.S. operations on civilians, such as the precise location of strikes and the numbers of civilians and combatants killed, as well as the number of casualties where the status of the person killed is unknown. Like the legal and policy framework, the civilian casualties report should be produced in unclassified form.
Human Rights First, along with a dozen other human rights and civil liberties organizations, also issued a joint statement urging the Trump Administration to release and explain reported changes it has made to its policy on the use of armed drones and other lethal force outside areas of active hostilities.

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