The UK government needs to come clean about targeted drone strikes

Before the government goes any further towards global kill lists, it needs to be transparent about just how far it’s already gone


‘Confusion and uncertainty,’ ‘lack of clarity,’ ‘confusing explanations.’  These are terms that appear again and again in a new Parliamentary report grappling with the Government’s murky drone policy.  

Given that the use of armed, robotic aircraft to carry out targeted killings overseas is a matter of life or death, the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) are alarming to say the least.

The influential cross-party parliamentary committee released its months-long inquiry into the UK’s use of drone strikes outside of declared warzones earlier this week. It rightly called for urgent transparency from the government as to what the legal basis is for its policy of ‘targeted killing’.

Not only did the committee find the Government’s position on such strikes ‘confused and confusing’, it argued the Government had ‘misunderst[ood] … the legal frameworks that apply’. As a result, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet had potentially exposed military personnel and Ministers ‘to the risk of criminal prosecution for murder.’

The JCHR’s inquiry was sparked by the Prime Minister’s announcement last September that the UK had carried out a ‘targeted strike’ in a ‘country where we are not involved in a war.’

The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, said they would not hesitate to do it again ‘anywhere else’ they felt it necessary. David Cameron called it ‘a new departure’ for the country.

This ‘new departure’ had all the hallmarks of the highly controversial, secretive US drone programme.

Undertaken by covert agencies such as the CIA, this campaign has seen over 500 strikes in countries – such as Pakistan and Yemen – where the US is not at war.  

While the US has refused to answer even basic questions about its programme, independent estimates by organisations, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, suggest the strikes may have secretly killed as many as 5,000 people, including hundreds of women and children.

But in many ways, this kind of unaccountable shadow war is nothing new for the British Government.  Indeed, a little-noticed section of the JCHR’s report detailed the mounting evidence of UK complicity in this US programme.  

Britain has supported the secret US drone war through the sharing of intelligence and the provision of RAF bases.  All the available evidence suggest that the UK has for years been working hand in glove with the US drone programme, doing everything but pushing the button to fire the missile.

However, attempts to get clarity over the UK’s role have been frustrated by a veil of secrecy and repeated obfuscation by the government.  A recent Vice News investigation found that despite denials, the UK had been intimately involved in tracking and adding targets to the US Kill List in Yemen for years.

In order to avoid detection, the Ministry of Defence had hidden its involvement from Parliament by ‘seconding’ its personnel to MI6. As an intelligence agency, MI6 is exempt from information disclosure rules.

But the complicity hasn’t just been in Yemen. In 2010 an unnamed source from GCHQ told the Sunday Times that the agency provides ‘locational intelligence’ to the US for drone strikes in Pakistan and that it was “proud of the work it did with America.”  

Such cooperation, as the JCHR noted, raises the troubling possibility that UK officials have already been complicit in murder, especially when the US standards for taking a strike at times have amounted to little more than those being struck having ‘ill intent in their minds’.

Given the US’s own generals are now calling the US drone programme a ‘failed strategy‘ that is ‘creating more enemies than [it is] removing from the battlefield,’ the JCHR’s report is a serious and much needed wake up call.

Before the UK goes any further down the slippery slope of global kill lists, it needs to be transparent about just how far it’s already gone.  Ministers must drop the tactics of confusion and obfuscation, and come clean with Parliament and the public.

Jennifer Gibson is a staff attorney at international human rights organisation Reprieve, who gave evidence to the JCHR’s inquiry into targeted killing.

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