Updated Mar 7, 2018

Trump facing imminent deadline on lethal force policy

A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport. Photo: Massoud Hossaini / AFP / Getty Images

When President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, he agreed to report to Congress by March 12 any changes to President Obama’s rules governing the U.S. use of military force and related operations. These changes began in secret last fall with the dismantling of Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields.

Why it matters: Even if the administration meets the deadline, which appears unlikely, it may not make its report public. Human rights groups consider the failure to release and explain changes to a previously public policy a dangerous step backward.

Some reported changes to existing policy:

  • Allow lethal targeting of individuals outside of armed conflict zones who do not pose an imminent threat, in violation of international law
  • Relax the “near certainty” standard that the target is present at the time of the strike, increasing risk to civilians
  • Give the CIA and U.S. military authority to carry out drone strikes without prior approval from the White House

Transparency around the use of lethal force is essential to assessing the lawfulness of military operations and providing redress for victims. This information is especially critical in light of the dramatic increase in strikes in Yemen and Somalia in 2017 and the resulting civilian casualties.

What’s next: If Trump lets the deadline pass or provides only a classified response, it will fall to Congressional leaders to hold the administration accountable to the American people. They could call for the release of a declassified statement of the policy or pass legislation requiring the administration to reveal its reasoning and authority for targeting and killing. As Congress seeks to reassert its warmaking authority, this important policy deadline is a good place to start.

Daphne Eviatar is director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA.

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