Blurred lines: Drones, the UK and the slippery slope to permanent war

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)

This week’s Guardian revelation that documents leaked by Edward Snowden show apparent GCHQ support for US drone targeted killings in Yemen demonstrates once again how drone technology is eroding our ability to draw the line between being involved in war or not.

Last week I took part in a discussion in parliament on the impact of drone technology. I was pressed by one of the participants on our contention that drones and the concept of remote, risk-free warfare is lowering the threshold for use of lethal force: “We just don’t accept this,” I was told, “where is your evidence?”

Just three days later US F-15 aircraft took off from their Suffolk base here in the UK to undertake the targeted killing of the Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Libya.  Belmokhtar is an Algerian veteran jihadist, designated an international terrorist by the US in 2003 and most notorious for organising an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which 40 civilians – including six British citizens – were killed.  The US F-15s dropped “multiple 500-pound bombs” on a building outside the Libyan town of Ajdabiya reportedly killing seven men in the strike but it remains unclear if Belmokhtar is actually among the dead.

What is clear is that the UK government authorised the use of its facilities for the launch of the targeted killing.  When pressed by journalists in London over UK-US military co-operation in relation to defence spending British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon pointed to the fact that the targeted killing operation had been initiated from a British base and told reporters “That’s how we co-operate.”

While Mokhtar Belmokhtar is certainly a wanted man – he has been charged in the US with hostage-taking, kidnapping and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction – it is unclear what legal authority the US (and by extension the UK) claims for his targeted killing.  While the US “consulted” with one of the two rival governments operating in Libya before the strike, legal authority is still murky.

Human rights lawyer Dan Carey, an expert on human rights in context of military intervention told us:

“The last time I checked, the UK Government didn’t agree with the US’s expansive view of a borderless war on terror. Thus – provided they knew about this in advance – they would have had to have asked and answered where the US’s authority to strike came from. The first question is whether Libya is in a state of armed conflict to which the US is a party, or if the US’s role is otherwise authorised by the UN.  If they are “reviving” the 2011 resolution authorising “necessary measures” then they are on very shaky ground.

If there is no legal authority, then this is a crime, a violation of the victims’ right to life and a violation of the UN charter.  Even if there is authority, this still leaves the question of whether killing by bombing in this way was proportionate, humane and sufficiently distinguished civilian targets in accordance with the laws of war and human rights standards.  Failings in that regard have the potential to amount to a war crime.

It certainly begs lots of questions to which we should get some answers.  The UK cannot simply wash its hands legally of acts carried out from its soil.”

While this particular targeted killing operation was not carried out by drones, it seems clear that the huge expansion in targeted killing that has been enabled by drones – more than 400 have taken place in Pakistan alone according to figures published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – has led to the normalisation and seeming acceptability of such operations.  As last year’s Stimson Task Force Report on US Drone Policy, authored by former senior US military and administration officials, puts it “it would be difficult to conclude that US targeted strikes are consistent with core rule of law norms” and yet “the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled US policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs.”

But it’s not only headline grabbing targeted killings in Libya and Yemen that illustrate the way that drones and remote warfare is seemingly corroding jus ad bellum criteria.

British MP’s insisted during last autumn’s parliamentary debate on military intervention against ISIS that it was only authorising British military operations in Iraq and not Syria. Indeed the resolution approved make this very clear. Despite this, just a few weeks later the MoD announced that Reapers would begin flying surveillance missions in Syria.  A recent Freedom of Information response to me from the Ministry of Defence showed that armed British Reaper drones controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire are now regularly crossing the border into Syria to undertake sorties there.  Information from these missions is no doubt part of the intelligence and surveillance information being provided directly to the US-led coalition for air strikes there as FCO Minister Tobias Ellwood stated in February.

Forever War

US law professor Rosa Brooks argued recently in a disturbing article in Foreign Policy that ‘there’s no such thing as peacetime’ anymore. “Since 9/11,” she writes “it has become virtually impossible to draw a clear distinction between war and not-war.” Rather than challenging the erosion of the boundaries between crucially distinct legal frameworks, Brooks argues that we must simply accept that “the Forever War is here to stay.” To do otherwise she maintains is “largely a waste of time and energy. “Wartime is the only time we have” she insists.

Such opinions, I suspect, are only available to those living far away from the daily threat of air strikes. For those living under drones, it is crucial, indeed a matter of life and death that – at the very least – we stick clearly within the boundaries set by international law.

Yet slowly but surely, step by step, these boundaries are being eroded in the drone wars.  And the UK is playing its part in this corrosion.  Through the provision of secret intelligence for unlawful US drone strikes in Yemen, by allowing British bases to be used to launch targeted killings in Libya, and by sending our drones across the border into Syria without UN authorisation, the UK is blurring, bending and frankly breaking international law norms. By dragging us into wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, drones are doing long-term harm to international peace and security


One thought on “Blurred lines: Drones, the UK and the slippery slope to permanent war

  • Hi Chris – good to see you still fighting this. All the best, Christopher

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