The Joint Human Rights Committee have today released their report into the use of armed drones for targeted killing. While the drone strike that targeted and killed 21-year-old British citizen Reyaad Khan last August was in many ways the trigger for the inquiry, the Committee chose to focus on the wider legal issues around the policy of targeted killing itself, rather than that specific operation.
In an initial assessment of the report there are three points to be made:
1. Important recommendations
While Drone Wars UK would not agree with some of the general conclusions reached, the Committee makes strong and important calls on the Government to clarify its often confusing and apparently contradictory position on legal issues related to the use of armed drones outside conventional armed conflicts. In particular it urges the government to clarify:
- the grounds on which it says that the Law of War applies to the use of lethal force outside an armed conflict;
- its understanding of ‘imminence’ in relation use of force under the right of self-defence and
- the legal basis on which the UK takes part in or contributes to the use of lethal force outside armed conflict by the US or any other country
The Committee also makes important recommendations in terms of the need for proper independent accountability and oversight that must be put in place if these type of actions are to be contemplated, and that the UK must engage in international discussions to build consensus around the legal frameworks limiting such use.
However it is extremely important that by addressing these issues we do not at the same time simply put into place policies and processes that normalise extra-judicial drone killing.
2. Logic gymnastics to square the circle
The Committee makes some impressive leaps of logic in attempting to make sense of the governments position on targeted killing. Over the past few years far too much scrutiny of the use of armed drones has focused on what governments say they are doing, rather than what they are actually doing. For example, when President Obama made his major statement on the use of armed drones in May 2013, reams were written about the forthcoming policy shift while in reality little if anything actually changed.
The Joint Human Rights Committee’s report takes this policy (of disregarding what governments are doing in place of focusing on their statements) even further by insisting the Prime Minister did not even mean what he said about drones and targeted killing.
Through some extremely convoluted logic, the Committee argues (drawing on statements made by the Defence Secretary during his evidence) that when the PM made his statement about the strike on Reyaad Khan in the House of Commons – acknowledging that this was the first time that the UK had launched a strike against a country in which it was not involved in a war, and that this was indeed “a new departure” – he did not mean it. Rather, the Committee say, what the Prime Minister was referring to with the phrase ‘a new departure’ was the domestic constitutional convention that has grown up governing the use of military force abroad, i.e. to consult the House of Commons ahead of time, or in emergencies to inform afterwards.
Through this ‘logic’, the Committee have attempted to square the circle (for themselves at least if no one else) that while on the one hand the PM told MPs in the House that the strike was to prevent a direct and imminent threat to the UK, at the same time the UK’s ambassador told the UN that the strike was undertaken as part of the UK’s support for Government of Iraq. These are two very different arguments and have very different legal basis.
Some attempt has been made to argue over the past nine months that the strike was done for both reasons at one and the same time but without much conviction. These new logical gymnastics are also likely to fail to convince however as they do not explain some of the wider questions such as why the Ministry of Defence continue to insist that the strike against Khan was not part of Operation Shader (the name of the UK military operation to support the Iraqi government).
Rather than simply parsing statements made by the executive it is surely right that we demand much more transparency and data about actual operations.
3. “Don’t blame the drones!”
Although the Committee were clear from the outset that its inquiry had a narrow focus on the policy of targeted killing and was not examining the wider impact of drone technology, they clearly accept the establishment view of drones. In particular the Committee state (para 1.24)
“We have become well aware during our inquiry of the capability offered by drone technology in countering terrorism and other threats to national security… The better quality surveillance and the greater precision in targeting, for example, make it easier to avoid civilian casualties.”
Elsewhere the Committee report (para 1.62)
“During the course of our inquiry, a number of witnesses persuasively argued that, while drone technology makes the use of lethal force abroad outside armed conflict easier, it is ultimately just one means of delivering lethal force. We agree. The significant shift in policy is to the use of lethal force abroad outside areas of armed conflict, rather than the use of drones per se. The availability of drone technology makes the use of such force much easier and therefore calls for renewed attention to how the legal framework applies in the light of new technologies and consideration of whether there is a need for internationally agreed guidance about what the relevant legal frameworks are and what they require.”
It’s frustrating that this important inquiry, which chose to focus narrowly on, and only take evidence about, policy rather than technology, makes such sweeping statements about the impact of the technology. We and others have argued for a long time that the technology itself is an important part of the equation that has enabled the expansion of targeted killing. While it is vital that the consequences of the policy are explored, it is surely right that the impact of the technology gets scrutiny too.
While the Committee, for example, argue that drones provide “greater precision”, there continues to be serious questions about the reality behind the presentation of ‘precision warfare’ and the transfer of risk from combatants to civilians (see here and more recently here) through the use of this technology.
This report is an important first step in opening up the debate about the UK’s adoption of drone targeted killing, but much more scrutiny and public debate is needed.