Technology and the future of UK Foreign Policy – Our submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry

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In a timely and welcome move, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recently launched an investigation into ‘Tech and the future of UK foreign policy‘.  Recognising that new and emerging technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of international relations and the rapidly growing influence of private technology companies, the Committee’s inquiry intends to focus on how the government, and particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.

A broad selection of stakeholders have already provided written evidence to the Committee, ranging from big technology companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, and BAE Systems, to academics and industry groups with specialist interests in the field.  Non-government organisations, including ourselves, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International UK, and the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have also provided evidence.

Not surprisingly, submissions from industry urge the government to support and push ahead with the development of new technologies, with Microsoft insisting that the UK “must move more quickly to advance broad-based technology innovation, which will require “an even closer partnership between the government and the tech sector”.  BAE Systems calls for “a united front [which] can be presented in promoting the UK’s overseas interests across both the public and private sectors”.  Both BAE and Microsoft see roles for new technology in the military: BAE point out that “technology is also reshaping national security”, while Microsoft calls for “cooperation with the private sector in the context of NATO”. Read more

Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK. Read more

Fallon to face questions on drone targeted killing – but will there be answers?

Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon will face questions from the Human Rights Select Committee on Wednesday (16 Dec) over the targeted killing of two British men in a UK drone strike.  21-year old Reyaad Khan from Cardiff was killed in the strike in Syria on 21 August 2015 alongside 26-year old Ruhul Amin from Aberdeen and an unknown third man.

As the Prime Minster acknowledged in his statement to the House of Commons,the air strike was a significant departure from previous military operations: Read more

PR Trumps Transparency Part II: Government response to Select Committee report on drones

responseThe Government Response to the Defence Select Committee Report on ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems’ (drones to the rest of us) was published on 29 July. As we wrote when the Committee’s report was originally published in March, there is a gaping hole in the document where actual details of UK drone operation in Afghanistan – and an analysis of their impact on the ground – should be. Without this crucial information it is, in our opinion, impossible to undertake any proper assessment of “the current and future use” of drones, as the Committee claims it has done.

Despite this obvious omission from its investigation – or perhaps because of it – the Defence Select Committee was able to be enthusiastic about the use of drones, calling them “a key military capability for the future.”  The report did however make some observations and recommendations, to which the Government has now responded. Read more

Defence Select Committee issues report on drones: PR trumps transparency

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Three years ago today (25 March) four Afghan civilians were killed and two seriously injured in a British drone strike in the Now Zad district of Helmand province. According to the MoD the strike, which also killed two men believed to be combatants, was investigated by ISAF who found that the strike had been “in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.”  Words of regret were issued, the case closed and British and US drone operations in Afghanistan continued unabated.

Seemingly by coincidence, the Defence Select Committee chose the third anniversary of this tragic event to release the report of its inquiry into the use of ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems’.  Not only is the anniversary itself ignored, so too is how UK drone strikes are actually impacting on the ground in Afghanistan. The fact that casualty figures from UK drone strikes in Afghanistan are not made public is not even mentioned, never mind challenged. Just as the four Afghan civilians killed in that British drone strike three years ago remain nameless, so to do all victims of UK drone strikes in Afghanistan Read more

British drone strikes in Afghanistan using borrowed US drones revealed

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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted that British RAF pilots have borrowed USAF Reaper drones more than 250 times in Afghanistan, launching weapons on at least 39 occasions. However the numbers of strikes by RAF pilots using US Reapers drones is likely to be higher as the MoD  are keeping secret the number of weapons launches by RAF pilots when they have been officially embedded with the USAF. Read more