Legal action initiated in UK as drone strikes continue in Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza

It was announced yesterday that a legal proceedings will be initiated in the High Court in London to challenge British complicity in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Reprieve together with Leigh Day & Co, acting on behalf of the family of Malik Daud Khan, one of 40 people killed in a CIA drone strike on a tribal gathering in North Waziristan in March 2011, are suing Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, William Hague over British intelligence agency support for the strikes. Richard Stein, Head of Human Rights at law firm Leigh Day & Co said:

“We believe that there is credible, unchallenged evidence that the Secretary of State is operating a policy of passing intelligence to officials or agents of the US Government; and that he considers such a policy to be “in ‘strict accordance’ with the law”. If this is the case the Secretary of State has misunderstood one or more of the principles of international law governing immunity for those involved in armed attacks on behalf of a state and/or the lawfulness of such attacks; and his policy, if implemented, involves the commission of serious criminal offences by employees of GCHQ or by other officials or agents of the UK Government in the UK.”

So far the Foreign Office has yet to respond. Meanwhile drone strikes have continued in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past weekend.

On March 9th between 8 and 12 people (reports vary) were killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan.  Yemeni officials and local witnesses also reported US drone strikes on Friday in Baydar, in the South of Yemen and again on Sunday in Jabal Khanfar. US military sources however refused to comment on these drone strikes .

At least 20 Palestinians, including a 12-year old boy have also been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza over the weekend. On Friday Israel carried out the ‘targeted killing’ of Zuhair Al-Qaissi, the leader of the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC). Two other people were also killed in what witnesses said was a drone strike although this has not been possible to confirm. Responding to the Israeli targeted killing, rockets were fired at Israel which led to further Israeli airstrikes, which are continuing.  Israeli drones are reported to be carrying out some of the airstrikes.

Teenagers and ‘blobs on a screen’ die as the drone wars continues to develop

16 year-old Abdul-Rahman, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a 'military-age man' according to the US, killed in drone strike in Yemen

The drone wars continue to develop with strikes taking place over the past ten days in Yemen, Somalia and Libya as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The RAF reported, in a unsurprisingly low-key way, that the 200th British drone strike had taken place in Afghanistan at the end of September, while according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) the 300th CIA drone strike in Pakistan took place last week in South Waziristan.  Amidst the frenzy of reporting around the death of Mummar Gaddafi this week, the Pentagon revealed that the US had carried out 145 drones strikes in Libya.   Details about the strikes in Yemen and Somalia are hard to come by and any reports are hard to confirm. In a revealing article Nick Turse has documented the spread of US bases connected with drone wars and suggests there are more than fifty such facilities around the world.

But statistics do not tell the whole story.  Occasionally we are given glimpses into the human impact of the drone wars.  On 14th October a US drone strike in Yemen killed nine people including 16 year-old Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki who was himself executed in a targeted drone strike last month.  According to a report in the LA Times the al-Awlaki family said Abdul-Rahman was only going to dinner and was not involved in terrorism. “His Facebook page shows a typical kid,” the family said.  “A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.”   In response a US official simply said the teenager was “a military-aged male travelling with a High Value Target”.   Glenn Greewald’s article on the killing of the 16-year old teenager and the media’s silence on the matter deserves to be read.

Two other victims of drone strikes also received attention last week. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Ben Rast, 23 were US servicemen mistakenly killed in a US drone strike in April 2011.  While the 390-page Pentagon report has yet to be released, the LA Times states that the report blames “poor communications, faulty assumptions and a  lack of overall common situational awareness.”

Jerry Smith, father of one of the victims spoke to the LA Times after he had been briefed by US military officers and shown video images of  the attack.  According to the LA Times:

Smith was shown video images taken by the Predator, he said. He saw “three blobs in really dark shadows” — his son, Rast and the other Marine mistakenly identified by the Predator crew as Taliban. He said it was impossible to see uniforms or weapons.  “You couldn’t even tell they were human beings — just blobs,”  he said.

So much for the famed accuracy and  incredible hi-resolution images that drones are supposed to provide.  The victims were ‘blobs on a screen’.

But it’s not just on the ‘battlefield’ that the drone wars are being expanded.  Behind the scenes, funds are being pumped into further research, development and training.  Work is being undertaken to ensure that drones can fly longer to further develop their persistence; to weaponize current non-armed drones such as Fire scout and  to develop technology that will allow new drones to be built in the future.  BAE Systems work with ten universities to develop this ‘flapless’ drone technology demonstrator called Demon (video) is just one example.   In addition the UK MoD has recently announced a new five-year programme to fund research and development into drones called the UAS Pipeline (pdf).   With regard to training the UK Empire Test Pilot School is to introduce a course to train UAV pilots while in the US the air force is investigating what is the ‘right stuff’ for a drone pilot.

Amidst all this depressing news it was good to see David Cortwright, of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, forthright piece for CNN this week.  Let’s give him the last word:

“The development of drone  weapons raises profound moral questions about the future of war. U.S. officials  are fond of drone weapons because they are inexpensive and seem to make the waging of war less costly. They allow leaders to conduct military operations without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers or drawing public disapproval. They give the false impression that war can be waged with fewer costs and risks. Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is dangerous and morally troubling. It lowers the political threshold of war. It threatens to weaken  the moral presumption against the use of armed force.  The use of drone aircraft perpetuates the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism and resolving political differences. We should know better by now.”

The Real Drone Virus

Since Wired announced last week that a computer virus has infected the Ground Control stations of the USAF Reaper and Predator drone fleet at Creech Air Force Base, the blogosphere as well as the general media  have been awash with the story.

While many commentators have jokingly refered to the Terminator movies, the reality is that the virus isn’t that serious.  While it is worrying that a so-called secure network controlling lethal weapons can become infected with a computer virus (and one that is apparently resisting attempts to delete it) it is seemingly a fairly common piece of malware that records keystrokes.

Much more serious is the ‘drone virus’ that has infected the body politic. Created in military labs by scientists looking for the quick, easy and profitable cure for the world’s security problems, the drone is now spreading virus-like around the world. Before the drone virus spread, the idea that nations could simply, publicly and illegally assassinate individuals and their families without causing outrage would have seemed incredible.  Now we have been infected, the military can ‘take out’ targets of opportunity thousands of miles away before heading home for dinner with the kids.  Now we have been contaminated by the drone virus, Presidents can command the killing of citizens without any charges being filed or indeed any due legal process.  This is the real drone virus and we must find a way to cure ourselves.

Th press too has become infected with the drone virus.  With little exception the vast majority of the media has lauded President Obama for the drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen on 30September.   Before any charges have been filed and without any chance to defend himself al-Awlaki was sentenced to death by US official and “senior lawyers from across the administration” following the drafting of a secret memo.

What criticism there has been in the mainstream media has focused on the fact that al-Awlaki was an American citizen (seemingly it is not so much of a problem to assassinate non-Americans) or the fact that other nations may also now think the have the right to assassinate people with drones.

Perhaps this piece, entitled ‘Drones and the Law’ from the Economist  typifies the response.  Mildly chastising Obama by arguing that drone assassinations should be carried out by the armed forces not the CIA – and suggesting that perhaps there could be secret court hearings to give the appearance of due process –  the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan is nevertheless described as “legitimate self defence”.

A notable exception to the supportive remarks of the drone virus infected press is a piece by Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent.   Whittam Smith seems to be immune to the drone virus.  In the end, he says,  the killing of al-Awlaki was murder.   He is right.

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.

Drones, targeted killing and international law

I’ve spent the past few days in Berlin at a conference organised by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International looking at how, ten years after 9/11, counter terrorism is impacting on everyday life around the globe.

One of the key strands of the event focused on the growing use of drones for targeted killing and I presented a short paper on Britain’s use of armed drones in Afghanistan.  Many of the participants told me that they had not appreciated how involved the UK had become in the ‘drone wars’.

I really appreciated the opportunity to discuss in formal and informal ways various aspects of the issue with legal experts and scholars from both Europe and the United States.  A good number of contacts were made which will no doubt give rise to future work.

(L-R) Wolfgang Neskovic (German MP), Ben Wizner (ACLU), Ben Hayes (Statewatch), Sarah Knuckey (NYU Law School), Chris Rogers (OSI)

On the main day of the conference itself a panel of four excellent speakers addressed the issue of drones and targeted killing.   An audio recording of their presentations together with questions and responses is available here.  For anyone interested in this issue I would highly recommend giving it a listen.

Thanks to Gavin Sullivan and everyone at ECCHR for the invite.

Focus on drones and targeted killing at forthcoming human rights conference

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International are hosting a conference entitled TEN YEARS AFTER 9/11  in Berlin on June 29 to map how the ‘war on terror’ is shaping new areas of our everyday lives and identify the challenges ahead for those fighting for human rights and social justice across the security field.

While the whole event, looks interesting, one particular panel at the conference, will explore the issue of drones and targeted killing with an excellent line up of contributors and they will also be posting articles relevant to the issue on the conference website.

The organisers will also be audio streaming the conference live to allow all those interested in these issues to join the discussion, regardless of where they are.  They will also be gathering questions from online listeners, who can submit questions or comments either via email or as a comment post on their website.