MoD challenged at Information Tribunal on secret UK Reaper drone operations

Drone Wars appeared in court yesterday to appeal the refusal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give basic details of UK Reaper operations outside of its campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Judgement in the case is due to be given in around six weeks’ time.

In January 2020 the MoD refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK seeking the number of UK Reaper flights that had taken place outside of Operation Shader during 2019 and their location. The request was refused both on national security and international relations grounds. Subsequently, Ministers refused to answer questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the sorties, claiming that Reaper was an ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform’ and that Ministers “do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Labour MP Clive Lewis wrote directly to the Secretary of State, Ben Wallace, about the matter and was told in response:

“REAPER is not conducting strike operations outside those theatres for which Parliament has approved the deployment of UK Armed Forces. The vast majority of REAPER missions are reconnaissance and surveillance operations and as I am sure you can understand, to reveal where it is conducting those missions would provide valuable information to our adversaries.”

Clive Lewis and crossbench Peer, Baroness Viviane Stern, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict submitted written statements to the Tribunal urging the need for transparency. Mr Lewis argued that  the refusal to answer questions about the deployment of Reaper is “a serious backward step in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Baroness Stern stated:

“Despite repeated attempts by myself and colleagues to attain even the most basic information about the UK’s drone deployments, policy, and commitments, Parliament has not been provided with the accurate and timely information needed to meaningfully carry out its constitutional scrutiny role. Whilst certain details must be kept secret in order to ensure operational and national security, the current trend of withholding information about the use of drones purely because it is seen as an “intelligence” asset, as well as withholding vital information on the UK’s growing military capabilities and commitments is deeply concerning and unjustified.”

In court, the MoD argued against the release of the information on two grounds.  Firstly, that the information was exempt from release under Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the information would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of relevant forces.  Secondly, it argued that release of the information was exempt under Section 27 of the Act, in that its release would prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State and/or the interests of the United Kingdom abroad.  Read more

Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. 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

New FoI figures on UK air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria

New figures released to Drone Wars UK in response to Freedom of Information requests shows a dramatic increase in the number of RAF operations in Syria in the first six months of 2017.  According to the figures, UK armed air missions in Syria rose by 480% in the first half of 2017 compared with the previous six months.

Read more

Reviewing the current debate on drones

Alongside intense international law arguments, a wider debate on the impact of the growing use of armed drones, within particular current conflicts as well as on long-term global peace and security, continues. To mark our sixth birthday we outline here the current state of the debate on some of the key issues.

 

Drones: Is it the technology, the policy, or both?

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Can the impact of the technology be ignored?

The starting point for many advocates of the use of armed drones is to dismiss any debate about their use by insisting that there is no actual difference between a drone and a conventional military aircraft.  Former drone pilot T. Mark McCurley for example writes “Is there a difference between bombs dropped off a drone or a fighter?” while Dave Blair argues that “the same weapons deployed from Reapers are also launched from Apaches and F-16s.  The idea of ‘drone strikes’ as distinct from ‘air strikes’ is a distraction.” Read more

Parliamentary Human Rights Committee release report into drones and targeted killing

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Click to open report

The Joint Human Rights Committee have today released their report into the use of armed drones for targeted killing.  While the drone strike that targeted and killed 21-year-old British citizen Reyaad Khan last August was in many ways the trigger for the inquiry, the Committee chose to focus on the wider legal issues around the policy of targeted killing itself, rather than that specific operation.

In an initial assessment of the report there are three points to be made:

1. Important recommendations

While Drone Wars UK would not agree with some of the general conclusions reached, the Committee makes strong and important calls on the Government to clarify its often confusing and apparently contradictory position on legal issues related to the use of armed drones outside conventional armed conflicts.  In particular it urges the government to clarify: Read more