Interior view of a Ground Contol Station for the Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) Reaper at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.Rui Vieira/ Press Association Archive. All rights reserved.Drones, like nuclear weapons, are here to stay. Unlike nuclear weapons, whose ostensible purpose is to deter, drones will be used more and more frequently as they get smaller and cheaper. They could be used by terrorists. There is talk of ‘suicide drones’.
The Ministry of Defence, true to form, was initially extremely reluctant even to admit the RAF was deploying drones, first in Afghanistan. Now, as they are used in Syria and Iraq, the MoD cannot avoid commenting on attacks by armed ‘remotely-piloted air systems’ (RPAS) as it insists on calling them.
The ministry is buying 20 American Predator B drones, at a cost of more than £400m. The aircraft, which can carry a range of bombs, cameras, and sensors, can fly for almost two days, will replace the RAF’s 10 Reapers. They will be operated, via satellite link, by RAF personnel at their base at Waddington in Lincolnshire. In an attempt to give them a better image, the MoD has renamed them Protector rather than Predator.
The attempt was not helped in September when an RAF Reaper mistakenly attacked Syrian army units as part of a US-led coalition attack that killed more than 60 troops. British Reapers have struck more than 250 targets in Syria and Iraq.
The British government’s sensitivity about the use of drones is understandable. The environment in which they are deployed, the mindset of the personnel operating them thousands of miles away from the intended targets, and obscure rules of engagement, contribute to a dangerous, unaccountable use of a weapons system – dangers compounded by the way modern conflict, and notably the use of drones, is leading to the blurring of peace and war. Unsurprisingly, given the open-ended nature of the government’s guidelines on drone attacks, the human rights committee is demanding further answers.
The government’s rather cavalier attitude, and the lack of clarity over its guidelines governing drone strikes, is amply demonstrated by its response to concerns expressed in a recent report by the parliamentary all-party human rights committee. Many of the questions the committee raised, including its position on the use of force outside armed conflict, were ‘hypothetical’, the government said in response to the committee’s report in October. There was no such thing as a ‘policy on targeted killings’, it said. Every case, every situation, depended on its merits, it continued, referring to the killing of Reyaad Khan in Syria on 21 August 2015. (The government argued that there was no realistic prospect that Khan would travel outside Syria so that other means of disruption could be attempted. Nor was there any prospect of the Syrian Government being willing or able to deal with the imminent threat he posed.)
The concept of what constitutes an ‘imminent attack’ – crucial in international law – ‘will develop to meet new circumstances and new threats’, the government told the all-party parliamentary committee. ‘It must be right that states are able to act in self-defence in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups EVEN IF (my emphasis) there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or the precise nature of the attack’.
The government continued: ‘Combating an enemy which may have covertly infiltrated our country, and can control attacks from abroad with sophisticated communications technology means that it will be a rare case in which the government will know in advance with precision exactly where, when and how an attack will take place. An effective concept of imminence cannot therefore be limited to be assessed solely on temporal factors. The Government must take a view on a broader range of indicators of the likelihood of an attack, whilst also applying the twin requirements of proportionality and necessity.’
Unsurprisingly, given the open-ended nature of the government’s guidelines on drone attacks, the human rights committee is demanding further answers on what it calls ‘key areas”, namely:
Is the government applying the Laws of War where operations are being carried out in areas outside of armed conflict? What degree of physical power and control over a person who is killed by a drone strike is enough to bring that person within the UK’s jurisdiction so that the right to life in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) applies? Does the government maintain its position that the use of drones outside armed conflict must be in accordance with international human rights law? And how does the government ensure that UK support of other states using lethal drone strikes does not contravene international human rights law, protecting UK personnel from future criminal prosecution?
British forces apply different rules of engagement to the US. Yet it is far from easy, in coalition operations such as those carried over Syria and Iraq, to distinguish between attacks by a US drone and an attack by a British one. It is even more difficult to separate the actions by UK and by US drones when drones are used for intelligence-gathering as opposed to actual bombing or missile strikes. RAF Reapers have provided intelligence enabling US drones to carry out air strikes. RAF Reapers have provided intelligence enabling US drones to carry out air strikes.
Furthermore, British intelligence agencies, notably GCHQ, provide intelligence enabling the US to carry out targeted drone strikes beyond the Middle East, notably in Somalia.
The human rights group, Reprieve, has observed that in its response to the parliamentary human rights committee, the British government has adopted some of the key principles of the US covert drone programme, in particular by arguing that the UK should be able to use force in response to threatened attacks ‘even if there is no specific evidence of where… an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack.’
That, says Reprieve, ‘diverges sharply from customary international law on the issue and matches almost exactly the controversial definition of an “imminent” threat used by the US to justify a covert programme that has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths for which no one has been held accountable.
In his book, Britain’s Secret Wars (Clairview Books 2016) Tim Coles refers to close collaboration between the UK and US on drone strikes in Yemen. He refers to a Guardian report on targeted killings there. We are faced with the prospect of drones and other weapons who could ‘decide on their own who to kill’.
David Omand, a former director of GCHQ and senior government adviser on security and intelligence has called on the government to disclose its guidance on intelligence-sharing where individuals may be targeted by covert strikes. He has made it clear he wanted to distance British drone operations from those of the US.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that the Pentagon is about to confront a ‘terminator conundrum’ – automated small drones that could ‘kill on their own’. We are faced with the prospect of drones and other weapons who could ‘decide on their own who to kill’. It is time the British government opened up, revealed its rules of engagement on the use of armed drones, and on what basis in law drone attacks are triggered.