U.S. Military Should Review Civilian Harm in Yemen Following Serious Shortcomings in Afghanistan, Syria

NGOs Urge New Investigations into Deaths and Injuries, Ask Defense Department to Apologize, Make Amends for Confirmed Civilian Harm 

Sana’a, Yemen and New York, NY, November 30, 2021 — The United States military should reform how it has responded to civilian harm in Yemen and more broadly, Mwatana for Human Rights and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic said today in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The Department of Defense has repeatedly failed to respond adequately to civilian harm reports, including after an August 29th U.S. airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, and according to a New York Times investigation into civilian deaths in Baghuz, Syria. In Yemen, the U.S. military should open new investigations into reported civilian harm, and take all further steps needed to ensure accountability, the groups said.  The military should offer a public apology and amends or reparations to families of civilians the U.S. has acknowledged killing or injuring in Yemen, they added.

“Grieving Yemeni families also deserve apologies, amends or reparations, and meaningful accountability for the harm they suffered, but the U.S. military has yet to take even preliminary steps after admitting that Yemeni civilians were killed in U.S. operations,” said Radhya al-Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana. “Meanwhile, the serious problems we saw in Afghanistan and Syria strongly indicate that the U.S. has failed to recognize the extent of civilian harm in Yemen as well.”

In 2019 and 2020, Mwatana and the Clinic submitted evidence showing that at least 38 civilians were killed and 7 more injured in 12 U.S. military operations in Yemen between 2017 and 2019. The submissions totaled over 150 pages, and included extensive information gathered by Mwatana’s researchers from site visits and dozens of interviews, as well as official government and medical records, photographs, and videos. The submissions also show that the operations caused other civilian harm, including damage to civilian homes and property, as well as long-lasting psychological harm.

In a written response, the U.S. military stated that they investigated these reports solely by consulting existing military records and intelligence. They appeared to consider no new sources, and conduct no interviews--either with military personnel who had knowledge of the incidents, or with civilian witnesses and survivors--in response to the twelve reports of civilian harm. Following internal review, the military acknowledged one new civilian casualty. However, the response did not offer an apology or acknowledge the victim by name. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command responsible for U.S. operations in Yemen, stated that the command would not make a condolence payment to the family, despite the loss of their primary means of support, and the severe suffering caused.  Finally, despite the significant evidence of civilian harm presented, CENTCOM cited national security considerations to avoid answering the majority of questions requesting information specific to each incident.

“U.S. military operations in Yemen have remained largely opaque, with few answers and zero accountability for civilians killed, injured, or otherwise harmed in these operations,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Project on Armed Conflict, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights at Columbia Law School. “The military’s deeply concerning response to reports of civilian harm in Afghanistan and Syria exposed broader problems we have been raising for years.”

The United States military has carried out a direct campaign of lethal operations in Yemen since 2002. Over nineteen years, the U.S. engaged in at least 326 air and drone strikes in the country, though the number could well be higher due to inadequate reporting on these incidents. Drone and air strikes significantly increased in 2017, resulting in the deaths of numerous civilians. Multiple ground raids in Yemen resulted in at least two dozen casualties.  Despite this toll, the U.S. military has acknowledged killing only 13 civilians in its operations in Yemen.

“The U.S. military should open new investigations into civilian harm we have reported, and make a serious effort to understand the civilian impact of U.S. operations there,” said al-Mutawakel. “All civilians killed or harmed by the U.S. military deserve acknowledgment, amends or reparations, and accountability for wrongs.”

The full letter is available here.