US Military Admits Killed Civilian in Yemen after NGO Investigations but Refuses to Provide Remedy
Admission Comes Amidst Biden Review of Strike Policies, Highlights Urgent Need for Examination of True Civilian Toll of US Operations
June 3, 2021, Sana’a, Yemen and New York, New York - The US military acknowledged one new civilian death caused by a January 2019 drone strike in Yemen, but continues to deny the vast majority of civilian harm caused by its lethal operations in Yemen, Mwatana for Human Rights and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic said today. The organizations called on the US to conduct comprehensive investigations of all prior US operations in Yemen and provide a full and accurate accounting of the civilian impacts.
“We welcome the admission, but the US military’s assessment of the civilian harm resulting from US operations in Yemen remains far below that credibly and painstakingly documented by independent organizations,” said Sarah Knuckey, Director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic. “And the US refuses to provide any compensation or apology, even to the families of the civilians it admits it has killed. Civilians are left fearing for their safety, and struggle in vain for years for truth and justice.”
The US military’s new civilian casualty admission first came in response to investigations by Mwatana and the Columbia Clinic. It then appeared in the US Department of Defense’s annual report on civilian casualties worldwide, released this week. The human rights organizations investigated 12 incidents and sent detailed files of evidence on 38 civilian deaths, 7 injuries and other civilian harm, including property damage, to the military. Four months after submitting the cases and requesting a reply, Mwatana published its information in an in-depth report. The 12 cases are among over 500 strikes since the US began operations in Yemen 20 years ago.
“The US military has spent nearly 20 years killing people in Yemen but still hasn’t worked out how to properly investigate and ensure accountability,” Radhya al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, said. “This new, belated admission by the US military shows how inadequate initial US assessments of its own operations are. Its records cannot be trusted.”
The Biden Administration is currently reviewing Obama and Trump-era strike policies in Yemen and elsewhere, and discussing the terms of a possible new policy.
“The US cannot credibly assess how to move forward if it still fails to acknowledge the true civilian cost of its operations,” said Kristine Beckerle, Legal Director, Accountability and Redress, at Mwatana for Human Rights. “The Biden Administration’s review should include a detailed examination of every operation since the US began its strikes in Yemen, and account for and remedy each incident.”
The United States has been using lethal force in Yemen since at least 2002. Despite years of credible documentation on the wide-ranging and long-lasting civilian harm caused by US operations in Yemen, the US military has extremely rarely acknowledged any civilian casualties as a result of its operations. Mwatana alone has documented dozens of civilians killed and injured in US operations.
The Mwatana and Columbia Clinic submissions covered 12 operations between 2017 and 2019. The submissions were based on a significant body of evidence, including site visits, dozens of interviews, and the examination of official government and medical records, photographs, and videos gathered by Mwatana researchers over a nearly four-year period in Yemen. In contrast, the US does not visit the sites of its strikes or interview witnesses, missing crucial information. The human rights groups provided the evidence in 2019 and 2020 to US Central Command, which is responsible for US military operations in Yemen. The submissions called for the US to provide acknowledgment, accountability, reparation, and amends for civilian victims.
“It’s hard to know what would ever be enough to convince the US military to adequately grapple with the civilian harm it has caused in places like Yemen,” said Bonyan Jamal, Accountability Officer at Mwatana for Human Rights. “Mwatana researchers spent years gathering evidence in remote areas of Yemen, facing significant risk, in the hopes that this information would help pave the way towards some form of remedy for civilian victims of US operations. And, after all that, the US military dismissed most of the cases and refused to provide any remedies or accountability whatsoever.”
Despite the significant evidence of civilian harm reported to the US military, it made only one additional civilian casualty admission. For Yemenis who have been directly affected by US lethal operations, it is nearly impossible to directly report civilian harm.
The one new civilian casualty admitted by the US military was in a 2019 airstrike in Al Bayda governorate. In a statement a few months after the strike, the US claimed, “all strikes this year targeted AQAP terrorists.” However, the strike killed a 67-year-old civilian man, Saleh Al Qaisi, who worked in Saudi Arabia and who supported his immediate and extended family. He was in Yemen visiting his family at the time of the strike. The US military said it would not provide any condolence payment to the family, despite the significant suffering caused them.
“The US military has the authority and the funding to provide payments to civilians impacted by US operations in Yemen, including for deaths, injuries, and property damage,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. “Commanders have made these payments to civilians harmed in other countries, and they should do so in Yemen.”
The US military’s admission of a civilian casualty in the 2019 strike is just the second time the US has acknowledged a civilian harm case in Yemen since a January 2017 raid in Yakla, Yemen. Both acknowledgments came in response to NGO reporting.
One of the 12 cases the human rights groups submitted to the US concerned the Yakla raid. Since the raid, the US has offered conflicting civilian casualty estimates. It told Mwatana and the Clinic that its findings of 12 civilian deaths were “broadly consistent” with Mwatana and the Clinic’s. They are not. Mwatana found at least 15 civilians were killed, and at least 5 civilians, all children, were wounded. Mwatana also documented property damage and social and psychological harm. Mwatana’s is one of the most conservative estimates on the civilian harm resulting from the raid.
US Central Command implied that it would not provide condolence payments for the civilian harm out of concern this might benefit “terrorist” organizations, but did not explain why condolence payments to civilian families would support terrorism. In its latest civilian casualties report, reviewing 2020, the US Department of Defense stated that it had not made any payments in last year in any of the countries where it carried out operations.
For the January 2017 raid, the US said it would not provide amends for deaths “in part” due to civilians’ presence at an “Al Qaeda compound.” Mwatana visited the village where the raid occurred two days afterward. Rather than an “Al Qaeda compound,” Mwatana found destroyed homes, traumatized villagers, and families who described being asleep in their homes, in the middle of the night, when the raid began.
The US response to the files of evidence Mwatana and the Clinic submitted was also deficient in other ways. The US did not offer an apology to the families of those killed. Even where the US acknowledged civilian deaths, it did not identify any of the civilians killed by name, age or gender. And the response to Mwatana and the Clinic only mentioned civilian deaths, not civilian injuries, trauma, property damage, or the long-term harm of being attacked and falsely accused of being a terrorist. While the US Defense Department’s latest annual civilian casualty report mentioned civilian injuries, it did so by stating that the US military had assessed no civilian injuries in Yemen, including in the 2017 raid in Yakla, in which Mwatana documented multiple children injured.
“Over and over we’ve seen the US military throw around the ‘terrorism’ label to try and paper over civilian harm in Yemen. And now when the US has finally acknowledged a tiny fraction of that harm, the military uses the same old excuse to refuse remedy to the families left behind,” said Beckerle. “The Biden Administration has the opportunity to take a rights-respecting approach to Yemen. Its course correction must include accountability and reparation to civilians.”
In Sana’a, Osamah Alfakih, Media, Communications and Advocacy Director, Mwatana for Human Rights (English, Arabic): Tel: +967 775546904; E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @osamahfakih
In Beirut, Kristine Beckerle, Legal Director, Accountability and Redress, Mwatana for Human Rights (English, Arabic): Tel: +961 78 971 959; Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @K_Beckerle
In New York, Priyanka Motaparthy, Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (English, Arabic): Tel: +1 929 375 5322; Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @priyanica
The US military acknowledged one new civilian casualty in response to detailed NGO investigations in Yemen but refused to provide even limited amends.
The US military acknowledged one additional civilian casualty in Yemen in an April 2021 response to submissions by Mwatana for Human Rights and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic detailing the civilian harm resulting from 12 US operations in Yemen between 2017 and 2019.
US Central Command devoted two sentences to this acknowledgment. In the first sentence, the US military acknowledged “one civilian casualty” in a strike on January 22, 2019, in Al Bayda governorate. US Central Command did not identify the civilian by name, age, or gender.
Mwatana found the January 2019 strike killed Saleh Al Qaisi, a 67-year-old civilian man. He had five adult sons and a 19-year-old daughter. After the strike, Saleh’s wife was traumatized and began to suffer health problems. The community organized a protest. Interviewees said Saleh was beloved.
In the second sentence devoted to the acknowledgment, the US military said, “The command determined that condolence payments were not appropriate.”
Saleh’s death had a significant impact on his family. He was his family’s primary breadwinner. Saleh worked in Saudi Arabia and sent money home. At the time of the attack, he was in Yemen visiting his family. His car, which the family relied on, was completely destroyed.
Later, the US Central Command response asserted that commanders have authority to provide “limited redress” as “a matter of discretion,” but that they are prohibited from doing so where payments might benefit terrorist organizations. The letter did not state if the relevant commander believed this to be the case for the January 2019 strike and if they did, how they made this assessment.
People who knew Saleh told Mwatana that the strike increased their frustration and diminished their sense of safety, saying that the strike indicated US indifference toward civilian lives. “We are desperate in trying to get our voices heard. We are being killed in cold blood,” a family member told Mwatana.
US Central Command continued to significantly undercount the civilian toll of the January 2017 raid in Yakla, Yemen, and refused to provide amends.
Since the January 2017 raid in Yakla, Yemen, the US has offered multiple civilian casualty estimates. Initially, the US government did not mention any civilian casualties. Then, US Central Command stated it “concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed” and that “casualties may include children.” In March 2017, General Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “a determination based on our best information available [is] that we did cause casualties, somewhere between four and 12 casualties.” In late 2020, Airwars had to remind CENTCOM of its confirmation of up to 12 civilians killed after a CENTCOM statement asserted that “there may have been civilian casualties.” CENTCOM blamed the mistake on an “administrative error.”
In the April 2021 response to Mwatana and the Clinic, CENTCOM said it “previously assessed” 12 civilians killed. The 2020 Department of Defense report also reported 12 civilians killed. The US military claimed that the information Mwatana and the Clinic provided was “broadly consistent with CENTCOM’s assessment of the number of civilian casualties.”
But, Mwatana found the raid killed at least 15 civilians, including 10 children under the age of ten, four women, and an adult man, and wounded at least five civilians, all of whom were children. Mwatana also found the raid resulted in other types of civilian harm, including property damage and social and psychological harm.
“Even if only considering deaths, 15 civilians is not ‘broadly consistent’ with 12,” Bonyan Jamal, Accountability Officer at Mwatana for Human Rights, said. “The US military brushing off the deaths of three people, whose loss reverberates amongst their relatives, their friends and their wider communities, indicates an indifference to the gravity of the loss of civilian life in Yemen.”
US Central Command does not identify the 12 civilians by name, age or gender. In the letter, the US military repeats the claim that the raid was on “an Al Qaeda compound,” claiming the commander determined condolence payments were “not appropriate, in part due to the civilians’ presence at an Al Qaeda compound at the time of the raid.” The raid was on a village, which Mwatana visited two days after the operation.
The US military failed to acknowledge the vast majority of documented civilian harm cases in Yemen.
US Central Command acknowledged the US military conducted all 10 of the remaining incidents included in the Mwatana and Clinic submissions but denied the documented civilian harm. Mwatana found these 10 operations, including nine apparent drone strikes and a ground raid in Marib governorate in 2017, resulted in the deaths of at least 22 civilians, including three children and two women, the injuring of two civilians, including a child, and other types of deep and long-lasting civilian harm.
In its response, US Central Command claimed the Mwatana and Clinic submissions used the terms “children and women” and “civilians” interchangeably. They did not. Those identified in the submissions as women and children and civilians were women or children and civilians.
The Mwatana and Clinic submissions adopted a conservative approach to civilian casualties. The submissions only counted people as civilians in instances where Mwatana found no credible indication of any association with an armed group or armed force. Mwatana included individuals in its civilian tally where researchers were able to collect the person’s name, age, and other information indicating their civilian status—for example interviews with family members about their lives, their occupations, and their roles in their communities, or examining documents relating to witness accounts. Where Mwatana found any information indicating a person might be associated with an armed group or armed force, Mwatana did not count this person as a civilian. Association or affiliation with AQAP would not alone render a person targetable under international law. As such, the submissions likely undercount the true number of civilians harmed.
In its response, US Central Command made the general point that women can be combatants. But, the six specific women that Mwatana identified as killed in US operations in Yemen were civilians. Relatives described two of the women, Dhabia, 63, and Hajera, 33, as housewives. Dhabia helped farm and take care of livestock. She was visiting Hajera, her niece, who was pregnant. Dhabia’s son rushed to the house after the December 2017 strike that killed both women, trying to collect his mother’s remains. Hajera died on the way to the hospital; her young son was with her.
The other four women that Mwatana identified as civilians in the submissions were killed in the January 2017 raid in Yakla. US Central Command repeated previous claims that “the enemy firing on U.S. forces included armed women and intermingled its personnel with children,” and that “US military personnel on the ground and in the air directed their fire only at combatants.”
The raid was on a small village in the middle of the night. People were intermingled in the sense that they were in their homes. All four civilian women the submissions identified were in their homes or trying to flee when killed. One woman, who was shot as she tried to flee, was found dead, clutching her small child. Another woman, the mother of ten-year-old Barzan, was in her house. As Barzan described it, “We were all asleep when we suddenly heard the shooting. Our mother gathered us in one room to protect us. My grandfather was immediately killed after he left the house. The house collapsed and my mother, father, and siblings were all killed.”
The US military response also appears to contradict earlier US claims on at least one strike. In the letter, the US military claims that, in nine cases, “US forces successfully struck or raided a valid Al Qaeda target.” But, CENTCOM previously told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the target of one of these strikes was the Islamic State in Yemen, not Al Qaeda. CENTCOM’s letter does not explain the change.
CENTCOM also claimed in nine cases that it was “confident that each airstrike hit its intended Al Qaeda targets and nothing else.” Mwatana found at least four members of the Yemeni army, to which the US is currently aligned, were killed in these operations, and two others wounded. CENTCOM’s letter did not explain if the US military was alleging that these partner force soldiers were members of Al Qaeda, or whether the US military contested the fact that these individuals were harmed. CENTCOM also did not explain why, in any of the documented operations, the US chose to target and kill these people, as opposed to seeking to capture them. In particular, the response did not explain why it was not feasible to capture individuals who were members of an allied forces’ military if they were the intended targets.
In March 2021, Mwatana released a report, Death Falling From the Sky, which provided detailed information on the civilian harm resulting from 12 US operations in Yemen between January 2017 and January 2019. At least 38 Yemeni civilians, including 13 children, six women, and 19 men, were killed in these operations. At least seven civilians, including six children, five of whom were under the age of ten, and one man, were injured. The operations also caused other types of deep and long-lasting civilian harm, including killing primary breadwinners, damaging and destroying important civilian property, and causing significant social and psychological harm. In a few cases, people left their homes, saying they felt unsafe and worried about future strikes.
As part of Mwatana’s efforts to seek transparency, truth, and accountability, Mwatana worked with the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic to report the civilian harm documented in these 12 operations to the US military. These submissions, totaling more than 150 pages, were delivered in December 2019 and November 2020 to US Central Command. Mwatana and the Clinic made significant efforts to seek a response, including whether the military could explain the strikes, and whether they would acknowledge civilian harm and provide reparation, compensation, or other amends to civilians, and ensure accountability.
Mwatana has documented the civilian impact of the US use of lethal force in Yemen for nearly a decade. Mwatana is based in Yemen and has researchers in almost all of the country’s governorates, with significant access to affected communities. The significant body of evidence that informed the submissions to US Central Command was collected over a nearly four-year period. Mwatana researchers visited strike sites; interviewed survivors, family members, and witnesses; photographed weapons remnants; collected photographs and videos; and examined relevant documents, including death certificates, birth certificates, medical reports, government and military statements, and documents detailing where victims worked and studied, and demonstrating the extent of harm victims faced. In many cases, Mwatana conducted follow-up interviews to collect further information.
US Central Command eventually responded to Mwatana and the Columbia Clinic’s submissions. In March 2020, US Central Command denied any civilian harm resulted from a March 2018 strike that Mwatana found killed a 12-year-old boy, Amer, and wounded his 17-year-old cousin, Hassan.
In April 2021, five months after receiving Mwatana and the Clinic’s second submission, which detailed 11 incidents of civilian harm, US Central Command sent a two-and-a-half-page response. The US military acknowledged one new civilian casualty and claimed the US military had “previously assessed” civilian casualties in the January 2017 raid. Even in these two cases, US Central Command said the US would not provide amends. The response acknowledged the US carried out the other nine operations but denied the resulting civilian harm.
In Death Falling from the Sky, Mwatana found the US was failing to investigate credible allegations of violations, to hold individuals responsible for violations accountable, and to provide prompt and adequate reparations to those harmed. The report included a series of recommendations to the United States, including to conduct more thorough and transparent investigations into claims of civilian harm, to abide by all applicable international law, including that constraining the use of force and protecting the right to life, and to ensure accountability and reparations for violations and provide other forms of amends to civilians harmed, regardless of an attack’s lawfulness. The Biden Administration has yet to heed these calls.
The full Mwatana report, the Mwatana and Clinic letters, and the US military’s responses are available here.