Liam Fox on Drone Strikes: Our Response

We have recently been forwarded a number of replies from the MoD in response to letters about the use of armed drones.  This letter from Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox – asserting that the UK completely complies with international law and that any civilian casualties are to be regretted – is typical of such replies  (click image left to see full letter).  Behind the bland assurances however serious questions remain.  Here’s our response to Dr Fox’s letter:

Dr Fox:  “ I am not aware of a statement … (attributed by your constituents to the Prime Minister in December 2010 about the numbers of insurgents killed by Reaper RPAS strikes in Afghanistan) nor am I able to provide information on the circumstances in which insurgents have been killed, or their identities.  Such information could be used by enemy forces ….”   

The MoD initially confirmed a figure of ‘more than 124 insurgents killed’ that David Cameron apparently gave in an off-the cuff statement whilst in Afghanistan last December, but they have recently backtracked and begun to deny the PM made any such statement.

Dr Fox argues that because information about the circumstances of the use of British drones “could” be useful to enemy forces he refuses  to release any information whatsoever about the circumstances of the strikes.   We would argue that any potential risk that the information could be helpful to the enemy needs to be balanced against the valid public interest  in understanding how this controversial weapon system is being used.

We believe that some broad information about the 180+ times that British drones have been used in armed strikes could be  safely released.  Indeed, international law, requires a level of public accountability about military operations.   When complete secrecy prevails, as is the case with  UK drones strikes, there is simply no public accountability.

Dr Fox:  “I can  confirm that since July 2008 there has been one incident involving UK Reaper where  there were six civilian casualties.”

Despite admitting that there have been civilian casualties from  British drone strikes,  it is far from certain  whether the incident described is the only time that civilians have been  killed.  Indeed doubt remains about the casualty figures given by the MoD in the above incident.

Firstly a complaint about the lack of clarity about the release of the casualty figures in relation to this attack was upheld by an internal MoD review.  More detailed and accurate figures  – four civilians killed and two injured –  were available but not given.  Instead the less informative and more general figure of ‘six  civilian casualties’ was released.    Dr Fox again gives the less accurate figure in his letter.

Secondly, the drone strike occurred on March  25th in the Now Zad district of Helmand province.   Local Afghan official in Helmand province said at the time that  two men, two women, and three children were killed and another three children and two adults wounded in the strike.

Finally it is important to remember that casualties designated as ‘insurgents’ by British and NATO forces in Afghanistan may in fact be civilians.

Dr Fox:  “UK forces operate in accordance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) also known as the Law of Armed Conflict and UK Rules of  Engagement (ROE). The selection and  prosecution  of all ISAF targets is based on a rigorous scrutiny process that is compliant  with IHL.”

While this sounds very clear, the reality is that international  lawyers, human rights experts and legal scholars are far from clear about who may be targeted in a conflict against non-state actors  like the Taleban or Al-Qaeda.  International law is clear that a distinction must be made between ‘combatants’ and ‘civilians’  but under international law ‘combatants’ generally means members of a state’s  armed forces.  The UK is not engaged in a  conflict with the Afghanistan armed forces – indeed we are their allies.

It is argued that civilians who directly participate in hostilities lose the protection that international law provides as long as the are directly participating in hostilities.  Others  have suggested that civilians who have a ‘continuous combatant function’ may be targeted, but again there are serious differences of opinion about this amongst hi-level legal experts.

The use of armed drones for targeted killing away from the battlefield – where targets may not be directly participating in hostilities – has increased the need for clarity about targeting under international law.  In such circumstances, ambiguity about what constitutes direct participation’ is not a theoretical debate; it puts individuals in a  precarious situation of being unable to predict what conduct will make them targetable.  As Christopher Rogers of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) has noted ( in relation to drone strikes in Pakistan but could equally apply to British drone  strikes in Afghanistan):

Residents of areas in which drones operate do not know what kind  of conduct or relationships could put them at risk. Offering indirect support  to militants such as food or quarter or political or ideological support would not formally qualify under international norms as “direct participation in hostilities.” However, it is entirely possible that the US  considers many people to be combatants, owing  to their relationships to known militants, when they are legally civilians.”

We have asked the MoD several times if  they will confirm that ‘insurgents’ killed by drones were directly participating  in hostilities.  They continue to refuse  to answer.

Dr Fox:  “In respect of  autonomy… the technical challenge is such that the MOD believes that an enduring need for a human component will remain for the foreseeable future.”

While the MoD believe that a  human  will continue to be in the loop  when it comes to launching weapons from unmanned aircraft for ‘the foreseeable future’  (how long is that exactly?) military companies such as BAE Systems continue  to work on developing autonomous weapons systems.  Time and time again we have seen that once  weapon systems are developed they are pressed into service.  The possibility of autonomous unmanned armed  systems is a frightening prospect and we would like to see a firmer rejection of  the development of such a weapon  system from  the UK government.

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