MPs and peers say legal case for drone strikes 'not clear'

Posted On: 
10th May 2016

The Government needs to provide “urgent clarification” about the legal basis for launching deadly drone strikes outside of conflict situations, a group of MPs and peers has said.

Reyaad Khan was killed by a British drone last August
PA Images

The Joint Committee on Human Rights investigated the use of drones in the wake of an attack in Syria on Reyaad Khan, a British citizen and member of IS who was killed by an unmanned mission over Syria last August.

While accepting there were legal grounds for the strike on Khan, the JCHR called for the Government to set out a case on airstrikes against terrorists who were not part of an ongoing war.

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The group said the Government needed to make clear why counter-terrorism rules, subject to provisions in the Human Rights Act, should not apply to drone strikes outside of conflict in favour of the laws of war.

“It is clear that the Government has a policy to use lethal force abroad outside armed conflict for counter-terrorism purposes,” the committee said.

“It is vital that the legal line between counter-terrorism law enforcement and the waging of war by military means does not become blurred, leading to the use of lethal force in circumstances not permitted by law.”

Committee chair Harriet Harman added: “When the Government orders our military to take a life outside of armed conflict, there should be proper accountability.

“Those making and carrying out the order to take a life need to know that there will be independent scrutiny to ensure that the highest standards have been adhered to.”

Ms Harman also said the UK should take the lead in establishing internationally-recognised rules for when the use of deadly force should be authorised.

“As the world faces the grey area between terrorism and war, there needs to be a new international consensus on when it is acceptable for a state to take a life outside of armed conflict. The UK Government should lead in the establishment of that consensus and thereby ensure that states are able to take the action which is necessary to protect their citizens without breaching the rule of law.”

In its report today, the JCHR accepts the Government’s argument that the strike on Khan was legal as part of the war against IS in Iraq and Syria.

But it noted the “confused and confusing” government response after David Cameron announced the incident, which was first justified on grounds Khan posed an imminent threat to national security.

Ms Harman, who was Labour leader at the time the drone strike was announced, said: “When dealing with an issue of such grave importance, taking a life in order to protect lives, the Government should have been crystal clear about the legal basis for this action from the outset. They were not.

“The statements of the Prime Minister, the Permanent Representative to the UN and the Defence Secretary in the aftermath of this military action were confused and confusing.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are clear that where we identify a direct and imminent threat to the UK we will take lawful action to address it and report to Parliament after we have done so.

"Such actions are only to be carried out as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted, and we would always do so in accordance with international humanitarian law."