New Report – In the Frame: UK media coverage of drone targeted killing

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Our new report looks at UK involvement in drone targeted killing and in particular at media coverage of British citizens killed in such strikes. It argues that the government’s refusal to discuss key details or policy issues around these operations has helped to curtail coverage, creating a climate where targeted killing has become normalised and accepted, eroding human rights norms.

In recent days, we have seen exactly how far the US is willing to take targeted killing by armed drone. The jump from targeting members of non-state groups classed as terrorists to the assassination of top military personnel of a state that US is not at war with may appear huge in terms of strategy and legality. Unfortunately, however, it is also inevitable. Drone Wars UK has consistently argued that drones – with their particular capabilities to stay airborne long periods, hovering over targets, able to track them undetected before firing ‘precision’ missiles – were always likely to be used in provocative ways that blur the boundary between war and peace and cause further destabilisation in international relations.

In 2015, the UK military joined the small (now expanded) club of states who have engaged in drone targeted killing. The first target was Reyaad Khan, a British member of ISIS, who was killed alongside Ruhul Amin, another UK member of ISIS, and a Belgian national. The reason given was the threat of an imminent attack orchestrated by Khan, someone who was part of a terrorist group that could not be negotiated with. These are much the same reasons used to justify the US targeting of Soleimani, which exemplifies how easy the jump from unknown non-state actor to major military commander is in the ‘war on terror’, of which armed drones are a central component.

Although UK commanders insist that armed drones will only be used in the same way that any weapon system would be, subject to the same international law and rules of engagement, it is clear that drone targeted killing is attractive for domestic governments. It is seen as a relatively risk free way of securing foreign policy goals without engaging in difficult and messy diplomacy or troop deployment. As a form of military engagement it has been shown to have less public resistance and the risks of conflict escalation are very real.

Conversely, it has also been shown that public understanding and critical engagement with issues of peace and war can be increased by comprehensive media coverage. Unfortunately,  however, over the past few years, as we have become increasingly familiar with the concept of armed drones “hunting down” terrorist suspects, debate on the issue remains severely hampered. This is largely a resulted of media reports containing carefully controlled government messaging, whilst ministers and officials refuse to engage in discussions about policy and legality, giving vague answers to MPs’ written questions and deploying the ‘we never discuss intelligence matters’ line.

In the first study of its kind in the UK, drone Wars has conducted research on media coverage of UK drone targeted killing to see how far public understanding and debate have been enabled or hindered by the way government have engaged with media.

Our new report, In the Frame, lays out this research and shows that although there has been much reporting of targeted killings, accountability and transparency on government policy remain elusive due to the lack of engagement from government. Neither at the time of the killing of Khan, nor since, has a policy been made public. The government refused to engage fully and openly in committee enquiries or provide any clarifications about a possible practice of targeted killing.

British ministers have argued for increase use of targeted killing, Guardian, 8 December 2017

Instead, it appears that an easy narrative for targeted killing has been constructed since 2015. Government communication of the early killings of Khan and Emwazi created a simple narrative to support the targeted killing of individuals. Moreover, the focus was often placed on the individual, either the legality of a particular strike or the crimes and notoriety of an individual. The government appeared to follow a policy of ‘quasi-secrecy’, giving away some information but rarely providing any substantial comment and leading to what was described as ‘dissatisfying’ engagement in parliamentary scrutiny. Finally, the lack of ethical debate was glaringly obvious.

As has been amply demonstrated in the killing of Soleimani,  the “significant escalation in the use of force” from the US in the killing of a state actor should sharpen our focus on the specific technology of armed drones and their implications for the changing nature of warfare.  Without proper debate and policy formulation for the use of armed drones, we are likely to see an erosion of key international human rights norms limiting the use of force, making the world a much more dangerous place.

In the Frame recommends that government publish its policy on drone targeted killing and answer questions on the existence of a kill list as a matter of urgency, allowing parliamentary scrutiny and public debate to take place. It should also commit to end targeted killing outside areas of conflict and engage in multilateral efforts to create international standards on the proliferation and use of armed drones.

  • For full data set of articles included in this study see here

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