Human Rights Watch Drones On…



In a recent blog post published by the Human Rights Watch at The Huffington Post they discuss their recently published report “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen”. This report is causing serious waves throughout international media (I literally monitor Google News for all items containing the term “Yemen”) with a huge explosion of articles, blog posts and commentary across the digital media world. After reading a few of these I came across the HRW blog post which seems to have the best summary of the report (inshallah, it is written by themselves). Reading the post I was aghast at the number of points either taken out of context, completely based off limited information and just plain biased reporting. Let’s go through their report and see where they failed horribly at spreading such a scandalous report that is being cited around the world as proof of “international war crimes.”

Drones are Not the Problem

“Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”

This is such an exaggerated quote it is disheartening for all writers, journalists and researchers out there. Walk the streets in Yemen on any day and talk to the people. Sure, they idea of strikes is unnerving and as a semi-nationalist public with firm beliefs in territorialism they generally disdain the strikes. However, I assure you this is not in the forefront of their minds nor concerns on a daily basis.  Most people in Yemen are focused on bringing home the bacon milk so to speak. Their concerns are zeroed in on work, school, family and religion. They number one issue in Yemen that directly impacts via hindrance is power cuts (internet, water and food are there too). Of course when it comes to

In the Arab World’s poorest country, it is not “drone strikes” that are the cause of the nation’s problems, instead it is something far more average; something most academics who sit at desks writing, seem too often to forget about: as one Yemeni stated “We are hungry and we need jobs.” Frankly, I find it appalling and arrogant for a group of such disconnected individuals to really think that the Drone UAV Campaign is the greatest issue facing Yemen.

I would have written and published this piece much sooner had it not been for extensive power & internet outages here in Yemen Since starting this I have been without power for arguably a cumulative 3 daysout of water for 1.5 days and without internet access for something like 4 days. I assure you the average Yemeni is far less concerned about a Hellfire missile than this report makes one believe. In a place where you have arguably far more disturbing things to worry about and far more common issues such as lack of utilities and a near crisis level of starvation a drone taking you out is of little consequence particularly considering the infrequency of occurrences.

The focus on these strikes as opposed to the real problems that affect Yemen, are missed completely, but then again, the real problems don’t make for good site hits, link-backs and viral media. Because in the end it is critiques like this that succumb to the same needs as any online brand – the need for readership. Let us take a look at the issues that affect Yemenis far more than the remote fear of a Hellfire missile falling out of the sky.

Recently, Yemen was listed as one of 16 countries classified as having “alarming” levels of hunger, according to the Global Hunger Index. Food scarcity and inflation is far more a dire situation in Yemen than any buzzing sound up above. So to the critiques of the US UAV program I ask you – What are you doing about this? Because from a US perspective I can tell you that America is doing something about it. It was reported that the final 42,000 metric ton flour donation to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) from the United States Government’s Food for Peace office. The wheat will be milled in Hodeida before being distributed by WFP to some of the 600,000 Yemenis displaced by conflict and instability.

In a country where it is known that poverty is often a driver of instability, why do so many critiques fail to annotate the connection between AQAP and much of the poverty over all. Look at how Yemen’s oil revenues declined to $585 Million from its comparable period last year. Take note of the citation: “The repeated attacks on the oil pipeline linked production blocks in Marib province and the refinery in Hodeida affected significantly the quantity of the crude oil production of designed for domestic consumption.”

How about those critics try to focus on how much money AQAP and its affiliated supporters is costing the Yemeni government and how this impacts the people of Yemen who are just trying to get by day to day.

Yemen’s poor people — around half the country’s population — do not have much of a voice at the talks. Like the woman in the video, many do not even know what the dialogue is. Instead, they are scrambling to make enough money to eat.

Our Policy is Not Drones

The media’s completely biased and hyperbole surrounding the use of UAV strikes is greatly hindering the problems in Yemen. Yes, to be sure, you are making it worse. Not only do you provide ammunition for those opposed to any form of engagement by the International Community in general and the US in particular, causing more incendiary drama that is unneeded; you are single handedly ignoring the troves of reporting, data, information and observations that cover the more important aspects of Yemen.

According to the anti-drone lobby, if you will, all the US does is send drones to Yemen to kill innocent people either intentionally or through negligence. Perhaps you are forgetting the large swaths of assistance the US provides to Yemen. Fret not, I will remind you, don’t mention it, it’s my pleasure.

To begin with, I highly recommend reading “High-Value Target: Countering al Qaeda in Yemen” by Former US Ambassador to Yemen Edmund J. Hull, as it details first-hand the efforts that were made by the US in Yemen when this situation really began to pick up speed.

Next we are going to look at the assistance package from the US to Yemen from 2012. CNN’s Security Clearance Blog reported at the time that:

“In the new assistance package, the State Department will provide roughly $47 million in security assistance. The Pentagon will provide an additional $112 million to train and equip the Yemeni security forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. On the civilian side, the United States will provide $178 million for humanitarian aid, development and assistance to help Yemen transition to democracy.”

Yes that is right, the math shows that the Civilian side of the assistance was greater than the amount of Military aid…by $20 Million. That is “$337 million in assistance in the 2012 fiscal year, up from $147 million provided in the previous fiscal year.” Now because there are many different avenues of funding for many types of aid let’s take a look at what the US is doing for the political transition of the country. In March 2013, the US Department of State reported:

In coordination with the international community, including the United Nations, the United States plans to provide $10.4 million in technical and operational assistance to support the Yemeni-led National Dialogue process, slated to begin March 18. We plan to contribute $1.2 million to support constitutional reform and referendum projects. We also plan to provide $8.4 million in technical assistance to prepare for national elections in February 2014, including for reforms to Yemen’s voter registry. We are also supporting the efforts of Yemeni women to ensure their voices and perspectives contribute to Yemen’s transition.

Looking at the Civilian/Humanitarian side of the aid alone for the 2012 fiscal year, Nabeel Khoury, (former Deputy Chief of Mission 2004-2007) stated “this is more than ten times what U.S. assistance to Yemen was during the 2004-2007 period.” So not only do we provide a ridiculous amount of aid to Yemen – we have exponentially increased it.

It is not just the government that provides a great amount of assistance either. The large mega American corporation of Proctor & Gamble donated millions of vaccinations to the Yemen people, reported

“In total over five million vaccines were donated by P&G to Unicef campaign for use in Yemen. These vaccines were distributed and used by Unicef and the Yemeni Government to vaccinate up to two million mothers of child-bearing age over a period of several weeks in 2011.”

The international community overall is pouring assistance into Yemen. Look at the efforts to better education in Yemen by UNICEF, who recently signed a $72.6 Million agreement to support educational needs in Yemen.

Unprofessional Research

“With rare exceptions, the US government only acknowledges its role in targeted killings in general terms, refusing to take responsibility for individual strikes or provide casualty figures, including civilian deaths.”

Clearly the authors have ignored the fact that it was the Yemeni government, who, when the strikes began, insisted that the US did not take credit for the strikes (same as in Pakistan) out of fear that it would erode political credibility of the administration in the eyes of such a territorial public. But hey, feel free to leave critical facts out of your reporting because it paints a picture better to sell your idea.

“The six strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians.”

Let’s look at the fact that of the 6, yes, only 6, attacks that are used as case studies, HRW themselves caveated that “security concerns prevented visits to four of the attack areas.” So the researchers visited only 2 of the 6 locations that they are reporting on. For such an incendiary report to only have conducted research at 1/3rd of the sites is simply poor research methods. The fact that the researchers could not even access 2/3rds of the site locations speaks volumes to the fact that these areas are dangerous and riddled with a notable number of bad guys.

Look at the fact that of the 6 locations or incidents, only one of them occurred in 2009 and the rest all between 2012 and 2013. So If the US has been striking Yemen for years does it not make one question their empirical research if 5/6ths of their research only covered a brief period of time of the operations they are researching?  This is just bad research from a scientific perspective. The time and space data are both not representative of the overall theory being published.

Alternatives to UAVs

We used to just swoop in and vanish you from whatever mud-hut tin-roof hide out you were in whether it be Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan. Then everyone threw their hands up claiming that not only the initial onsite detention was illegal, but the “enhanced interrogation” methods we used were illegal. Okay fine, how about we just hold on to you forever, but then the indefinite detention of detainees was protested and protested so well that the US could not continue it at the level and frequency that they were. This eventually led to the fact that for a bad guy to be neutralized, which we are going to do no matter what – because we generally do not like our skyscrapers and planes falling out of the sky over our cities – if we cannot detain him, cannot process him legally (via criminal means) then the only other option is to kill him. What did people expect to happen?


Frankly, I cannot begin to do justice to the argument against the HRW report and subsequent reporting from it, in its defense. To ascertain a far better grasp of the fallacies of logic in them I implore you to read two additional responses that – if I had better internet would have beat in publishing the same arguments – truly delve into a clearer picture of the issue. The first one is Joshua Foust’s How Human Rights Groups Misinterpret Drone Strikes and the second is Benjamin Wittes’ Thoughts on the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports. Writtes’ piece actually elicited a response by HRW that you can read here and his subsequent response to them here. I must say that reading HRW’s primary defense of their poor research to Writtes as summarized by saying in effect ‘sure our research was weak but it is not our fault, it is the US governments fault for not telling us everything!’ – well there is an argument that truly wins. Kudos to you HRW. Try focusing on issues that have caused far more deaths in Yemen than UAV strikes such as say I don’t know, maybe the North…or better yet, focus on the human rights abuses by Al Qaeda who crucified a human being.


  1. Pingback: #Drones are Not the Problem in #Yemen @alastairsloan | Soldier, Spook, Statesman
  2. brandonscott361 · May 23, 2014

    Reblogged this on Soldier, Spook, Statesman and commented:

    Rehashing and older yet important post.


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