“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.
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’.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.