The Overseas Operations Act, drone strikes, and the presumption of lawfulness

The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.

With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.

Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology.  Read more

New UN Special Rapporteur report on armed drones and targeted killing – its relevance for the UK

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has produced a new report on armed drones and targeted killing for the UN Human Rights Council.  The report follows up and adds to two previous reports by her predecessors which we reported on at the time here (2010) and here (2014). While reading the full report is recommended, here is our summary and how it speaks to UK drone operations.

Focused on the use of armed drones in particular for  targeted killings, the report  lambasts the silence of States and international institutions in response to the damage being done by their increasing use:

“The vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, drone technologies and drone attacks generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force, and the very institutions established to safeguard peace and security. [Para 1]

Read more

New report: Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD

Click to open report

Drone Wars is today publishing ‘Falling Short: An analysis of the reporting of UK drone strikes by the MoD‘. Since the beginning of air attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Operations Shader), the MoD has periodically published reports of the RAF strikes on its website. Law lecturer and member of the Drone Wars Steering Committee, Max Brookman-Byrne, has undertaken quantitative analysis of these reports and examined them in the light of international law.

The report finds that while the MoD’s attempts to be transparent in this area are to be welcomed, too often insufficient information is given. The fact that nearly half of all reports of drone strikes fail to convey sufficient information for even cursory or superficial assessments in light of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is highly concerning. It means that while the MoD’s reports provide an apparently transparent framework, in reality they fall short in this regard. Read more

The lawfulness of the drone strike against Sally Jones

By Max Brookman-Byrne, Lecturer in Law, University of LincolnReposted with permission.

Sally Jones, reportedly killed in US drone strike in June 2017

It was today revealed by various newspapers (for instance, the GuardianBBC and Mail) that Sally Jones, the so-called ‘White Widow’, has likely been killed by a targeted drone strike. Jones was described as being a member of ISIS and was apparently killed, along with her 12-year-old son, in June 2017 near the Iraq-Syria border.

As a researcher whose work for the last three and a bit years has been on the lawfulness of drone strikes, the question of whether this strike was lawful or not immediately came to mind. Jones was viewed as a member of ISIS and generally the media has uncritically reported her death, implying an assumption that the strike was lawful. But is this correct?

There is an armed conflict occurring in the situation in which Jones was Read more

PM must publish Intelligence Committee report on UK drone killings

Dominic Grieve MP, Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee

Soon after it had been re-constituted in the new parliament, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) issued  a statement in October 2015 saying that an investigation into the drone strikes in which British nationals were killed was an “immediate priority”.

Fifteen months later, in December 2016, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) put a short note on its website saying that it had handed over its report, UK Lethal Drone Strikes in Syria, to the Prime Minister after completing its inquiry and expected a redacted version would be published in the New Year.  Four months later we are still waiting. Read more

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?” Read more