Thu, 30 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Delivering deployable AI: A must-do for UK defence Partner content
By Thales UK
Press releases
By BAE Systems Plc

How can we strengthen protections for civilians in 21st century warfare?

4 min read

In 2012, the APPG on Drones was set up in response to growing concerns over the use of armed drones and centred on examining their legal, political and human rights impacts as an emerging tool for military operations. Today, to mark the Group’s new and expanded remit as the APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict, we are delighted to be hosting our first UK-US legislator’s dialogue on strengthening the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

We are grateful to be joined by Congressman Jim McGovern, who has spearheaded bipartisan calls for heightened scrutiny on the US use of military force, and Dr. Larry Lewis, co-author of President Obama’s civilian casualty policy. The event will provide a unique transatlantic dialogue to share best practices and lessons learned; and to identify what more needs to be done to enable greater civilian protection as close military and political partners.

The nature of warfare is changing, with civilians across the globe continuing to pay the price

Cross-sector and non-partisan collaboration and expertise underpin all of our work. The Group has created a cross-sector expert network of over 50 experts and organisations that provide nuanced and compelling briefings. Fittingly, today’s event will benefit from the expertise of UK and US civil society organisations, including Airwars, Save the Children, War Child, CIVIC, InterAction and Saferworld.

The nature of warfare is changing, with civilians across the globe continuing to pay the price. The UN has estimated that 90 per cent of war casualties are civilians, the majority women and children. Today, we’re bringing together legislators in the UK and US to stand up for civilians in conflict and start work towards much needed solutions.

The Group’s expanded remit reflects the fact that drones do not exist in a vacuum. They are one of many tools used together in an increasingly complex security environment, with conflicts occuring in densely populated areas and featuring a multiplicity of actors. Simultaneously, we’re seeing a move away from large-scale ground interventions toward an increasingly remote approach that overwhelmingly relies on the use of air and drone strikes; wide-area explosive weapons in populated areas; special forces operations; and working with partners as the primary means of achieving military objectives.

These complexities pose particular challenges when it comes to the protection of civilians and have resulted in a devastating rise in civilian casualties and the sweeping destruction of civilian infrastructure.

The end result is an often opaque picture, where details on deployments and partnerships are not required to be reported to Parliament, let alone debated or voted on. These approaches present new and continued risks to civilians, whilst undermining our ability as Parliamentarians to assess and oversee policy. Our new broadened focus allows us to work more effectively on the challenges inherent in modern conflict as a whole; addressing the scrutiny and oversight gaps that emerge through the increasing reliance on partnerships and coalitions.

The UK has created a number of initiatives that provide a good foundation to strengthen our ability to protect civilians in conflict. These include initiatives on human security; women, peace and security; preventing sexual violence in conflict; and children in armed conflict. However, these initiatives remain fragmented and robust plans for their implementation have not been effectively incorporated into the recent Integrated Review on Defence, Security and Foreign policy.

Further gaps were identified in our in-depth 2018 inquiry into the UK’s use of drones and its military partnerships, chaired by Professor Michael Clarke, former director general of RUSI, with Professor Dapo Akande, co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), acting as legal advisor. The inquiry’s findings were cited by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee a year later, echoing the Group’s warning that Britain’s military capabilities and commitments are outpacing existing procedures for Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.

Our Group hopes to provide a resource for all Parliamentarians who wish to understand the challenges we face in conflicts today, and how we can work together as legislators towards effective solutions.

Much more work remains to be done, and Parliamentarians can play a pivotal role in standing up for civilians in conflict. We welcome all interested Members to join the Group, and we look forward to working together on our new programme in the months ahead.


Baroness Stern is a crossbench peer. Stewart McDonald is the SNP MP for Glasgow South. They are co-chairs of the APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.


Engineering a Better World

The Engineering a Better World podcast series from The House magazine and the IET is back for series two! New host Jonn Elledge discusses with parliamentarians and industry experts how technology and engineering can provide policy solutions to our changing world.

NEW SERIES - Listen now