The tragic news that Afghan civilians have been killed in a British drone strike comes, unfortunately, as little surprise. I have been investigating the use of armed drones for the past three years and despite the mantra-like use of phrases such as “extreme precision” and “surgical strike” by US and UK military spokespeople, equally monotonous are the regular reports of civilian casualties.
The death of these unnamed Afghans was revealed by an anonymous correspondent from the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at RAF Northwood in reply to my information request in January 2011. Answers to three other questions I had asked – about the 124 insurgents the David Cameron said had been killed by British Reaper drones – were refused as ‘PJHQ J9 POLOPS’ did “not consider that it would be in the public interest to release this information at this time”.
I spent two days last week meeting with human rights lawyers and activists at a conference organised by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, examining amongst other issues, the growth of targeted killing by US and British drones. Speaker after speaker reiterated the serious legal questions raised in relation to human rights law and international humanitarian law by the use of armed drones, not least the need for proper accountability and oversight. As Philip Alston the former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, wrote in the Guardian last year in respect of drone attacks “Accountability is an independent requirement of international law. When complete secrecy prevails, it is negated.”
The secrecy surrounding drone strikes is matched perhaps only by the silence of our politicians. While there are clear and serious legal, ethical and moral concerns – some raised even by the MoD themselves – the number of armed drones in UK’s arsenal is due to double within the next two years and the rush towards greater autonomy for drones proceeds apace. All with little or no parliamentary or public debate.
The secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding the growing use of British armed drones is a matter of great concern. It should not have taken such prolonged investigation by researchers and journalists to uncover the deaths of civilians in a British drones strike. There needs to be a full and proper public debate on all the issues raised by the increasing use of armed unmanned drones by British forces. We once again call for an end to the use of armed drones by British forces.