We mustn’t ignore the fact that British drones kill too

This is my comment piece published in today’s Guardian 

Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, is right to question the morality and legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan (The Predator paradox, 6 May). As he states, in 2010 alone there were 118 US drone strikes in Pakistan with estimates of up to 1,000 people killed. Some of these may well have been aimed at so-called “high-value targets”; but as Macdonald rightly points out, “several hundred innocent people of all ages have also died”.

So it is a shame that this rare critique of unmanned drone strikes says nothing about Britain’s own use of armed drones. There is a virtual wall of silence surrounding such strikes. We do know that between June 2008 and December 2010, more than 124 people were killed in Afghanistan by British drones. We know this not because of any ministerial statement, parliamentary question, or Freedom of Information (FoI) request, but because of a boastful, off-the-cuff remark to journalists by the prime minister during his last visit to Afghanistan.

I have repeatedly tried to obtain information about the circumstances of British drone strikes under FoI legislation, but all requests have been refused as being “prejudicial to the defence of our armed forces” or, more recently, simply ignored. A parliamentary question asked by my MP, Andrew Smith, about whether British drones were firing the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile – a variant that British forces are known to possess – was refused as “its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of our armed forces”.

Macdonald suggests that “tossing a dime would be a better way of identifying a ‘high-value terrorist’ than relying on US military intelligence”, and that “Guantánamo proves the tragic inability of the US military to differentiate between an enemy and an incidental bystander”.

I have heard similar sentiments in my investigations from British military officers and officials – the implicit assumption being, of course, that British forces would never be so inaccurate with their targeting or reckless with their drone strikes.

However, without accountability and scrutiny, without proper information about the circumstances of these strikes, we cannot pretend to be legally or ethically superior to the US in this matter. Macdonald would no doubt agree with Philip Alston, the then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, writing for the Guardian website last year, who said of drone strikes that “accountability is an independent requirement of international law. When complete secrecy prevails, it is negated”.

With controversy growing, it is high time that the defence secretary, Liam Fox, makes a full statement to the House of Commons, giving as much detail as possible about Britain’s drone strikes. In particular we need to know whether all those killed in the strikes were directly participating in hostilities at the time; whether the UK has or would use drones for assassinations of so-called high-value targets; and whether any civilians are known to have been killed or injured by UK drones.

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